The importance of being self-important

Terrence Malick returns with The Tree of Life

Laramie Eppler, Brad Pitt, and Tye Sheridan star in The Tree of Life, this year's Cannes Palme D'Orr winner

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).

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