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Not that he needs it — he just won the highest honor at the Cannes Film Festival — but I’m writing this week in defense of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life.
By now you’ve no doubt heard that this is Malick’s fifth film in 35 years; that Brad Pitt and Sean Penn star in it; that it comprises a retrospective view of a 1950s nuclear family in Waco, Texas, following the news that the middle son has died at age 19; and that the film uses special effects footage to ruminate on the origins of the universe and the evolution of life on Planet Earth.
You have likely read comments about the director, Mr. Malick’s pretentiousness. And you might have read that the audience at Cannes stood up and booed at the end of The Tree of Life’s screening.
Yes, it’s long and ponderous. Yes, it wrestles with life’s big philosophical questions and no, it doesn’t offer clear insight into any of them. And what’s with those dinosaurs?
I will confess to two points of irritation with the film: 1) The ethereal mother, played by Jessica Chastain, with her delicate bones, fair skin, and gossamer back-lighting really got on my nerves; and 2) choirs of angels singing are always a bad idea.
But on reflection, which I’ve been doing all week since seeing it, The Tree of Life achieves something at which nearly all contemporary American films fail: it depicts a child’s heart and vitality with a vision clear and true and unadulterated. The boys in the film, three brothers, seemed as real to me as my own sons.
The bulk of the film focuses on Jack, the oldest, who later in life becomes Sean Penn, a brooding and pensive architect, gazing out at the futuristic Houston skyline from the window of a steel and glass skyscraper presumably of his own design — the antithesis of the place he remembers roaming with his brothers when he was a curious boy on the verge of puberty.
Here’s what Terrence Malick gets right in his depiction of a family in small town middle America during a summer sometime in the 1950s: freedom of movement; the velocity of brothers running through endless blocks of residential streets; a river for swimming and washing away sins and carrying away evidence of misdeeds; the endless futility of yard chores in a brutal, unforgiving climate; the tedious boredom and pent-up volatility of the family dinner table; a boy’s frightened and thrilling witness to depravity and deformity; open windows, with and without screens.
Moreover, Malick focuses on a moral quandary that is often addressed in novels, but rarely in films. Jack — wonderfully played by Hunter McCracken, a young actor who looks like a real boy with widespread, see-through ears, bruises, and scabs — is plagued this particular summer by the seduction of violence. He wanders the alleys with his friends and accepts dares to bust out garage windows with rocks. And at home, he begins to understand both the power and the weakness released by his father’s random outbursts of rage and borderline abuse.
A lesser script and a more commercially inspired director might use this opportunity to create a plot twist, but Malick chooses otherwise. Instead, he takes us inside Jack’s head, into the internal torment, the need and desire to be good, the fear that he will never be good, that most intense and intimate conversation with God that is as real and visceral to a kid on the brink of change as the monster under the bed, the ghost in the closet.
Malick gets a lot of other things right — the faltering father-son dynamic; the constant, wiggling hyperactivity of a household full of boys; a brother’s tender need for forgiveness — but this central conflict of Jack’s is what stuck with me after seeing The Tree of Life.
It never goes away, does it, that desire to be good, to be better? It fades in intensity. It becomes self-serving and about appearances. It grows old as we do, out in the middle distance, still striving. Our children go away or die and we think it’s because we were not good enough.
Yesterday, walking the dog, I saw a dusty hollyhock growing out of the gravel on the edge of an alley, its red blossoms like a girl’s petticoat, strong and thriving. An hour later, a sudden violent windburst snapped in half the stalk of the pampered, 7-foot tall purple delphinium in my garden. Either could have been a set piece for a glancing shot in The Tree of Life.
Kathryn Eastburn is the author of A Sacred Feast: Reflections of Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Ground, and Simon Says: A True Story of Boys, Guns and Murder in the Rocky Mountain West. You can comment and read or listen to this column again at The Big Something at KRCC.org. “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.