The competition was fierce last month at the Cannes Film Festival, where some of cinema’s most revered directors vied for the top prize: Lars von Trier with a futuristic melodrama, Pedro Almodovar with a story of plastic surgery and revenge, and the Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne with a closely observed portrait of a boy and his bike. ¶ Cannes is where cineastes come to genuflect before auteurs, and auteurs, in turn, come to be adored. Which makes it fitting that the coveted Palme d’Or ultimately went to Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life.” Among the minor deities he was competing against, none is more worshipped than Malick, who over his 40-year career has made only five films, each more sweepingly impressionistic than the last. ¶ Even with a short resume, he’s managed to develop a singularly distinctive visual style and dreamily oblique narrative approach that have become instantly recognizable, whether he was reinventing the Western with the immigrant saga “Days of Heaven,” following U.S. soldiers through a weirdly enchanted World War II Pacific theater in “The Thin Red Line” or imbuing the familiar story of John Smith and Pocahontas with startling urgency and radiance in “The New World.”
From the very beginning of his career, with his debut film, “Badlands” (1973), Malick, now 67, proved adept at bending genre to his idiosyncratic, somewhat abstracted will. Extruded through Malick’s mystical consciousness and still, introspective gaze, that classic couple-on-the-run crime thriller, starring Sissy Spacek and Martin Sheen, became an improbably lyrical exercise in romance and transcendence. Ever since, A Terrence Malick Film can be counted on to occupy that trancelike, liminal space somewhere between prose and poetry.
With little dialogue or obvious plot, Malick films came to be known for their luminous cinematography, bucolic settings and open-ended structures (audiences looking for neat third-act answers are advised to inquire elsewhere). Often featuring iconic characters wandering through lush, painterly landscapes — whether the Wyeth-like vistas of “Days of Heaven” or the luridly green jungle grasses of “The Thin Red Line” — they unfolded at their own, unforced pace, bringing viewers along into Malick’s meditations on the wonders of nature, the meaning of life, and the mysteries of a remote and inscrutable God.
Because his vision was so strong, his themes so large and his output so sparse, the release of a Malick film came to be an event, like “Harry Potter” and “Twilight” for the cinephiles whose fetishes aren’t wizards and vampires but the honeyed light of magic hour and exquisite sound editing. Meanwhile Malick, a Texas native, continued to live in Austin, politely refusing to speak to the press about his films and quietly working far outside Hollywood’s madding marketplace.
He came to be described as “reclusive,” perhaps inevitable in an era when to publicize is to exist. I lived in Austin for two years and can assure readers that Malick was no recluse — he routinely helped young filmmakers develop their projects and could often be seen leading a completely normal life in and around the city.
Regardless of the reality, the Malick myth looms as powerfully as ever above moviedom. And, whether through monklike purity or canny calculation, the director himself has burnished it to the point where, even from his beatific perch outside the film industry, he has become a powerful figure within it. His name is invoked with reverence in the halls of studios and talent agencies in Los Angeles, not because those executives appreciate his elliptical approach to story or languorous takes of wheat fields, but because the movie stars who drive the business want to work with him.
“The Tree of Life,” which Brad Pitt executive-produced, made it to theaters because Pitt agreed to star in it. He joins a long line of actors — including Sean Penn, Colin Farrell and Christian Bale — who have relished the opportunity to be part of Malick’s meticulously composed tableaux.
Watching “The Tree of Life,” it’s easy to see the attraction. Pitt does some of his finest work in recent years in the film, which traces the life of a 1950s family, its legacy of pain and sweetness, and its associations with the birth of the universe and timeless questions of origin.
Pitt plays Mr. O’Brien, the authoritarian patriarch of three young boys coming of age in Waco (where Malick grew up). Square-jawed, forbidding, as prone to Old Testament fury as to flagrant bouts of affection, Mr. O’Brien is a frightening, mercurial force. Malick, working with master cinematographer Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki, captures his volatile household on the fly, with a hand-held camera and natural lighting that create a world both spontaneous and ambered in nostalgic reverie.
With the movie’s roots in Malick’s childhood, it’s possible to see “The Tree of Life” as the elusive filmmaker’s most deeply personal film yet. Surely anyone who came of age in postwar America will recognize those intimate but universal moments he brings back to life: throwing rocks at an old shack’s windows or dancing through filmy clouds of DDT from a passing truck.
But “The Tree of Life” is just as intimately revealing in its most ambitious, bravura sequence, wherein Malick stages nothing less than the creation of the universe, complete with cosmic dust, surging magma, swarming jellyfish and even computer-animated dinosaurs. (To skeptics unsure whether Malick and CGI would be a good mix, he deploys it astonishingly well.) As with all of Malick’s films, “The Tree of Life” unfolds less as a story than a spiritual inquiry, an extension of the philosophy he studied as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford and taught at MIT.
More than any Malick film that has come before, “The Tree of Life” explicitly addresses the most far-reaching metaphysical issues that have otherwise nibbled at his movies’ edges. In “The Tree of Life,” to paraphrase St. Augustine, the question Malick poses lies in the gaze he turns to the natural world, to “the sea and the deeps,” to “the living animals, the things that creep.”
At its most visually and emotionally transporting, “The Tree of Life” can be read as Malick’s agreement with Augustine that, the sun and the moon and the stars having been queried, “Their answer was their beauty.” There’s no doubt it possesses the sweep and ambition that define auteurism at its go-for-broke best (hence that Palme d’Or). But the movie also points up what can go wrong when the director has become so adored that he’s mistaken for infallible.
Early in “The Tree of Life,” we hear that “there are two ways through life, the way of nature and the way of grace,” an observation some will find profound, others simplistically shallow. But it loses what heft it has within a framing device he uses to set that argument up — featuring a scowling Penn as one of the adult O’Brien boys — that feels cursory, melodramatic and, in “The Tree of Life’s” fuzzy-wuzzy climactic scenes, laid on hopelessly thick amid diaphanous shots of sunflowers and the sound of heavenly choirs.
Then there are the unforced errors, such as the confusion throughout as to which son Penn is (according to press notes, he’s the eldest, Jack). That approaches the realm of unforgivable, especially after Malick employed five editors in making sense of the film’s vast amount of visual and thematic material.
Has Malick succumbed to his own myth? Are his acolytes too obedient to question his supreme authority?
We know Malick better than we ever have thanks to “The Tree of Life,” but the value of what’s revealed can’t help but be distorted by the auteurist’s chief occupational hazard: self-indulgence. Beseeching cinema’s own remote and inscrutable god, we turn our gaze to Malick’s films. “The Tree of Life” answers with considerable, even unforgettable beauty. But at its most exasperating and undisciplined, it suggests that beauty isn’t always enough.
(138 minutes, at Landmark’s Bethesda Row Cinema) is rated PG-13 for some thematic material.