As if it needed any greater pedigree than simply being a Terrence Malick film, The Tree of Life arrives in theaters as winner of the 2011 Cannes Palme d'Or, the top honor from the world's most renowned film festival. Malick has directed only five films in 38 years, and The Tree of Life has had critics stumbling over themselves to describe its collision of the cosmos, spirituality, philosophy, and the deeply personal nature of familial love. Most everyone admits it's a tough nut that defies easy interpretation, demands repeated viewings, and may even be (gasp!) flawed in some fundamental ways. But the mantle of genius is sticking strong to Malick and The Tree of Life, along with its ruminative themes on the natural world and existential questions about who we are, why we're here, and where we're going after we've moved beyond our experience of the known.
All five of Malick's films have aspired to the realm of poetry. Because of the mystique that has grown up around him -- he stays resolutely out of the public eye and does not comment about his work -- the grand master label has become a given. He surrounds himself with a trusted creative team, and actors lucky enough to be chosen to share his vision have waxed rhapsodic about his process. In a recent interview with the New York Times' Dennis Lim, The Tree of Life's star Brad Pitt said that Malick fosters an atmosphere that allows for serendipity in capturing both elegiacal imagery and the aesthetics of personal interaction. "He finds perfection in imperfection, and he's always trying to create the imperfection," Pitt told Lim. Pitt said that working with Malick was "liberating but exhausting," and that he gave his actors free rein to answer "this actor’s quest of always trying to be in the moment, which is a bit precious but very true."
Others have observed that Malick uses his scripts as a starting point, but that they become less important than capturing moments that arise unexpetedly when shooting begins. Famous for laboring over his work both during shooting and in post production, Malick relies heavily on editing and sound design to shape his films. His intention has been expressed as a desire to capture emotion on film in a way that few directors have ever been able to do.
The Tree of Life certainly follows his obsession with nature and the beauty of living things, be they the branches of a tree or the churning vapors of a distant galaxy. In 2005 he brought the gaze of 17th century explorer John Smith (Colin Farrell) to the exotic shores of North America with The New World. His 1998 interpretation of The Thin Red Line, James Jones' novel about the World War II South Pacific battle on Guadalcanal strove for similar themes of the awesomeness, splendor, and sometimes horror found in the details of life so many of us pass by without a second glance.
Another device revered by Malick is the use of observational voice-over from his actors that intertwine with the spectacle of his images, sometimes in seemingly random ways. Malick is a Harvard educated Rhodes scholar who taught philosophy at MIT, so it's not surprising that he should be interested in bringing his idealistic view of the world to bear in his art. He uses the internal monologues that revolve in his characters heads to give voice to his own existential wonder. In The Thin Red Line, the virtual who's who of male Hollywood stars -- Sean Penn, Woody Harrelson, Nick Nolte, Adrien Brody, Jim Caviezel, et al -- mingled their voices to achieve a higher grace than that of a traditional war movie. The New World and The Tree of Life are also filled with voices of actors musing to themselves and to us, whether their thoughts relate to Malick's narrative or not.
The 20 year gap closed by The Thin Red Line was preceded by what is nearly universally hailed as Malick's golden achievement. Days of Heaven is a breathtaking and heartbreaking glimpse at life in the farmlands of the Texas panhandle in the early 20th century, starring Richard Gere, Brooke Adams, and Sam Shepard. Golden is also an apt descriptor of the visual style as filming took place almost entirely during "the golden hour" just before sunset, giving every scene its distinctive and entirely natural burnished glow. Malick was awarded the directing prize at Cannes for Days of Heaven in 1979.
Malick's first feature, Badlands was made on the cheap in 1973, but remains the prototype from which all his themes evolved -- the haunting voiceover, the wonderment or sense of dread provoked by environment, and a reliance on the just-so-ness of natural light. Performances by the very young Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek as an indifferent serial killer and his teenage lover remain powerfully affecting, as does the striking imagery of the American West.
Perhaps in an effort to make up for lost time, Malick has already shot his as yet untitled sixth film which is set in present day Oklahoma and stars Ben Affleck and Rachel McAdams. But it's unlikely we'll see the film in time for next year's Cannes Film Festival, and maybe not even the year after that. For Terrence Malick, neither films nor life are things to be rushed, and each appear to hold eqaul importance in his ethos as one of the great artists of our time.--Ted Fry