Shall We Gather at the River? Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life
There has been a lot of controversy about Terrence Malick‘s new film The Tree of Life. Some critics call it “pretentious.” Others use words like “transcendent.” I am not going to use either word, but I will warn you not to go into the theater with a noisy bag of popcorn or a cough.
The opening twenty-some minutes are the quietest I’ve ever experienced, and the most solemn. You don’t want to be rattling paper as a family mourns the death of a son in stricken silence on the screen, or as an eerie flame flickers, signifying the beginning of creation.
My down-to-earth introductory remark will suggest that I am a skeptic about this controversial film, as I am. But if I won’t call it “transcendent,” I won’t dismiss it as “pretentious” either. Malick’s previous work — Badlands and Days of Heaven are my favorites — calls for a little more reverence, after all, and The Tree of Life has intrinsic value not only in its aspirations but in its achievements.
As for aspirations, the film seeks to present the value of a single life — or the lives of members of an ordinary family — in the light of eternity. That’s why it moves from the mourning for a lost son straight to a staging of the Creation/Big Bang of the universe.
Then it moves through a series of episodes in the lives of three young brothers growing up in a fully realized mid-century small-town America. Their story is told as in the fits and starts of memory, and though its details can leave some questions, the thickness of its reality is never an issue. Finally the film focuses on Sean Penn, who plays the oldest brother as a grown man.
Penn provides the fulcrum for the movie’s metaphysics as he wanders in landscapes both glittering modern and starkly pre-human, racked with questions about the meaning of life after the death of a younger brother. The film seeks to give him answers through swirling images of creation and memory. But the abstract images of billowing clouds, sea, and fire do not cohere as dramatic, or even pictorial, vehicles for meaning. They are at once too specific and too vague.
On the other hand, the depiction of the life of childhood as remembered in swatches of discrete detail — such as a tense dinner in which the oldest son forks each canned baked bean on his plate with growing resentment — is sharp and convincing. The narrative of this son’s rebellion carries an almost unbearable suspense as it is dramatized in episodes that show the human world “in a grain of sand.”
The boy’s family — played beautifully by a subdued Brad Pitt, lovely Linda Chastain, and three remarkable boy actors — embodies both the questioning humanity in The Tree of Life, and the actuality of its questions rendered in memorable detail. That humanity is a remarkable thing in Malick’s film, worthy to be praised by the jury at Cannes.
As for Malick’s metaphysics, I’ll admit that I was left restless with his insistence on meaning and unconvinced by his pile-up of abstract cinematography. But I would rather have such an exploration of the good in a film than another pretentious fantasy where children are on an endless quest against evil — where are we now? (In a school for wizards, on a ghostly pirate ship, or in some other never-never land?) And so I am happy to have an ambitious film that is quiet in its quest rather than presenting a series of ever-more repulsive monsters roaring their terrible roars.
Even so, I can’t confidently interpret the ending of The Tree of Life. For me, it offers no answers, though it does carry the solace of that old-time hymn, “Shall We Gather at the River?” used in the background of so many American movies. Malick’s invocation of the biblical imagery of that hymn is neither ironic nor reserved.
His film seesm to reply, as Penn finally meets his father, mother, and brothers somewhere out of the ordinary world and time: “Yes, we’ll gather at the river/ The beautiful, the beautiful river/Gather with the saints at the river/That flows by the throne of God.”