The importance of being self-important

arts@sfbg.com

FILM Mainstream American films are so rarely adventuresome that overreactive gratitude frequently greets those rare, self-conscious, usually Oscar-baiting stabs at profundity. Terrence Malick has made those gestures so sparingly over four decades that his scarcity is widely taken for genius. Badlands (1973) was the kind of idiosyncratic, near-brilliant commercial nonentity that period’s commercial flailing allowed executives to fund; 1978’s Days of Heaven was pictorially stunning, but dramatically freeze dried, its 19th-century prairie triangle a melodrama sublimated by a director who worshipped landscapes. People? Not so much.

Yet those films’ cool status as commercial failures and artistic treasures fostered a Malick cult, amplified by his elusiveness in subsequent decades. He became the holy grail — one prodigy who checked out before he could disappoint (unlike, say, Michael Cimino), heightening all expectations by staying nearly as inaccessible an artist and celebrity as Thomas Pynchon.

Were those two in cahoots? Because around the same time Pynchon launched his shockingly unexpected literary return, Malick returned with 1998’s The Thin Red Line, a James Jones novel (à la From Here to Eternity) turned metaphysical spectacular, with half the male stars in Hollywood drafted to prove their artistic cred by working for the master. It was a pretentious, uneven, distractingly starry movie — but also frequently transcendent, the horror of World War II military life and death spun into a frequently rapturous lyric meditation on nature, God, and existence. It provided the hitherto unknown, subsequently not-much-less-so Jim Caviezel with a better Jesus part than The Passion of the Christ (2004). It was a film whose tremendous poetry and heart barely triumphed over self-indulgence. Still, it did.

By contrast, 2005’s The New World was a mess no amount of pretty pictures could sculpt into viable shape. It offered the worst of latter-day Malick — New Age coffee-table-book photography, the endless banal stream-of-consciousness voiceovers in search of a screenplay — with scant narrative or thematic spine.

Now there’s The Tree of Life. Famously delayed over and over again from predicted festival debuts while Malick tinkered, it’s at once astonishingly ambitious — insofar as general addressing the origin/meaning of life goes — and a small domestic narrative artificially inflated to a maximally pretentious pressure-point.

Tree starts (after a quote from Job 38) with a 1950s all-American family getting some very bad news — never specified — about one of its sons. Soon we get a lot of gauzy psychedelia, cosmos views, and miscellaneous FX one gradually perceives are meant to be the mind of God, the big bang, and subsequent evolutionary development of earthly life. Malick does not disappoint with the staggering imagery. Some is gorgeous if predictable in his now-familiar staring-through-trees-at-glinting-sunlight fashion, some space-odyssey fantastical (2001: A Space Odyssey‘s VFX wizard Douglas Trumbell is listed as a consultant).

What’s simplistic is the larger meaning — despite the now-usual Malick excess of affected voice-overs ("Father … always you wrestle inside me, always you will" a child intones) — the gender roles (Jessica Chastain’s ’50s wife is part Donna Reed, part angel of mercy) and aesthetic cliches of his prayerful search for significance beyond the underserved norms of narrative and character development.

The thesis here is a conflict between "nature" (the way of striving, dissatisfied, angry humanity) and "grace" (the way of love, femininity, and God). After a while Tree settles into a fairly conventional narrative groove, dissecting — albeit in meandering, often forcedly "lyrical" fashion — the travails of a middle-class Texas household whose patriarch is sternly demanding of his three young sons. Eldest Jack (Hunter McCracken) eventually comes to hate this alternately affectionate and cruel father.

As the father, a solid Brad Pitt gets the best-defined part here, playing a man who invents arbitrary rules simply to punish petty transgressions. Yet he’s no monster but a conflicted, resentful aspirant toward the American dream taking those frustrations out on his loved ones. The specificity of everyday tyranny, most often practiced at family meal times — the movie’s aesthetically simplest, most emotionally potent scenes — suggest Malick is working through autobiographical demons here.

The Tree of Life is thus like The Great Santini or This Boy’s Life meets Tarkovsky (or, worse, Tarsem); something relatably intimate housed in the most ornately overblown package imaginable. It’s like those James Michener novels in which a simple soap opera is backgrounded by 300 pages of historical errata practically going back to the amoeba from which our protagonists descended. Only Malick, bless him, actually depicts the amoeba.

As a modern-day survivor of that household, Malick’s career-reviving ally Sean Penn has little to do but look angst-ridden while wandering about various alien landscapes. The child actors are excellent. But Chastain, in an expansion of the Eternal Woman roles played by Miranda Otto in The Thin Red Line and Q’orianka Kilcher in The New World, plays not a character but an abstract of ethereal, endlessly giving maternity, forever swanning about in gauzy sundresses, at one point so full of grace she literally floats in midair. I doubt Malick realizes he’s put her on a traditional sexist pedestal that reduces while it exalts. She’s a simple creature — all love! — while the menfolk get to be thorny and complicated.

Set in Waco but also shot in Rome, at Versailles, and in Saturn’s orbit (trust me), The Tree of Life is so astonishingly self-important while so undernourished on some basic levels that it would be easy to dismiss as lofty bullshit. (Malick’s soundtrack of Mahler, Smetana, Holst, Górecki, Berlioz, etc. only heightens his grandiosity.) Its Cannes premiere audience booed and cheered — both factions right, to an extent.

Speaking for the middle ground, I’d say this is a cheeringly daft enterprise by turns extraordinary, masturbatory, and banal. Encouraging slightly loony poets to work on a grand scale is always a good thing, even if the results are this mixed. Malick goes way out on a limb, his attempted philosophical weight often nearly crashing the movie to the ground. But by a hair’s breadth he stays on that branch, wobbling and flapping wings — while most major studio-bankrolled American directors never think of climbing the tree in the first place.

THE TREE OF LIFE opens Fri/3 in San Francisco.