I hardly know where to begin to talk about The Tree of Life, Terrence Malick’s epic trip into spiritual rapture and boyhood nostalgia. Saw the film yesterday morning, felt duly blown away, then attended the press conference immediately after. The notoriously reclusive director was absent. His excuse: shyness. Which even the moderator found preposterous. This is Cannes, after all, the auteur festival; directors rank higher here than stars. Sean Penn was also absent, on his way back from Haiti and trying to hit the red carpet for the premiere. But his role is a minor one, just a framing device for the story.
Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain, plus some of the production team, were left to hold the fort, struggling to explain the mystery of Malick. Pitt and Chastain co-star as an overbearing dad and a beatific mom in this tale of three sons growing up in a ’50s suburb of Waco, Texas. We know it’s Waco, because we see the sign on a DDT truck spraying white clouds of insecticide that the boys scamper through as if it’s just another lawn sprinkler.
Pitt, who was unusually articulate, defended Malick’s absence. “He sees himself as building a house. I don’t know why people who make things are expected to sell them.” (Though Pitt seems to have accepted that’s part of his job description as a superstar.) The actor went on to explain the logistics of the shoot. For his main location, Malick “started by renting the entire block and dressing it as the 60s.” The cast could roam around and let things happen, while the crew shot with natural light. Pitt said Malick would get up every morning and write for an hour, delivering several pages of script, single spaced to the actors. The child never saw any script. Sometimes Malick would just be “torpedoed” into a scene.
Describing the director’s method, Pitt said, “he was like the guy standing there with a butterfly net, ready for that moment of truth to go by. The best moments were not preconceived. They were happy accidents.” In fact, there’s a moment when a large monarch butterfly lands on Chastain’s hand. Usually when that occurs in a movie, there’s a butterfly wrangler. Chastain said it was just one those things that happened.
The Tree of Life‘s narrative is minimal. It’s another Malick landscape movie that goes where no Malick movie has gone before, from a suburban backyard to the outer limits of the cosmos. There are rhapsodic images of boyhood nostalgia and of Creation— stellar cataclysms, erupting volcanoes, churning seas, even dinosaurs.
These are some of Malick’s favorite things: sparklers, sprinklers, rocks thrown through windows, fireflies, a frog tied to a firecracker, curtains billowing over a heating vent, bedtime stories, climbing trees, rolling through tall grass, transparent jellyfish. . . I could go on.
For the record, I loved the movie as an rhapsodic experience, though I’m not sure what it amounts to. The ending is layered with so many wedding-caked amens that I thought we’d never reach the heavenly afterlife of the closing credits. But if the road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom, Terence Malick is trafficking in some serious enlightenment. His unfashionable lack of irony and cynicism is astounding, along with his apparent faith that it’s actually possible to achieve a cinematic state of grace—to glimpse the eye of God on camera. Whether or not you’re a believer, it’s a staggering vision.