While this summer's slate includes the usual superhero action flicks and animated CGI tales, one much quieter release has the attention of art-loving cinephiles everywhere. That's what happens whenever a new Terrence Malick movie hits the big screen, in this case, The Tree of Life, opening in late May.
Malick, 67, has described this long-gestating, highly secretive project starring Brad Pitt and Sean Penn as "a cosmic epic, a hymn to life" in which Penn's character "finds himself a lost soul in the modern world, seeking answers to the origins and meaning of life while questioning the existence of faith." CT hadn't seen the film before going to press, but its appeal comes courtesy of its director's pedigree.
A Salinger-esque recluse and auteur with a distinct cinematic vision, Malick has made only four films over the last 40 years. After two acclaimed movies in the 1970s (Badlands, 1973; Days of Heaven, 1978), Malick disappeared for 20 years. He reemerged to great fanfare with 1998's The Thin Red Line, a WWII epic nominated for seven Oscars. Seven years later, Malick returned with the elegiac American origins story The New World (2005), lending his lyricism to the legend of Pocahontas and John Smith.
Part of what makes Malick unique is that he aims not just to tell a story but to reveal the world. His films endeavor to explore the very existence of man in a dynamic universe: the glorious, achingly beautiful creation characterized by good and evil, light and dark, war and peace, pleasure and pain.
The trailer for The Tree of Life begins with this line: "There are two ways through life: the way of nature, and the way of grace." Such duality is clear in Malick's other films, all of which juxtapose images of Paradise with harsh visualizations of fallen creation. In The Thin Red Line, soldiers ponder the "war in the heart of nature," wondering why the world seems so essentially driven by love and strife, beauty and mortality. In Days of Heaven and The New World, idyllic, unbridled, Edenic romances are brought down to earth and confronted with the realities of practical, contained existence.
In each film, Malick's characters ponder humanity's position vis-à-vis the divine (through regular monologues about God), just as Malick ponders the presence of God in his camera's inescapably spiritual gaze, characterized by frequent glimpses upward toward a transcendent light and ponderous shots of a creation groaning for redemption. Malick seems less interested in plot or dialogue than in an ambiance that captures these "groaning" dialectics of existence: solemn black figures against a field of waving wheat, a distant lightning bolt and delayed clap of thunder, an alligator captured and bound.
Malick studied the philosophy of Martin Heidegger at Harvard and Oxford. His films seem to share Heidegger's notion that the world reveals itself through our moods and emotions, not cognition and rationalism. "Color shines and wants only to shine," wrote Heidegger. "When we analyze it in rational terms by measuring its wavelengths, it is gone." Malick's sensory films suggest that for him, truth and beauty exist most fully in the unexplained and momentary experience of encounter, in the visceral primacy and invasive "thereness" of nature, whether in close-ups of dying animals (Badlands), glistening vistas of blowing wheat fields (Days of Heaven), or shimmering rivers in a dark, unexplored land (The New World). Though Christians find the ultimate revelation of truth and beauty in the person of Jesus Christ, Malick's perceptive attention to nature's wonder and majesty fosters a healthy contemplation of the character of God as revealed in creation.
Malick would have us approach his films not as puzzles to be solved, but as phenomena to be experienced. He wants his films to capture the magic, wonder, and mystery of the universe as it is seen, heard, and felt. A Malick film should thus not be deconstructed, but received: washing over us as a cleansing flood of beauty and truth.
Brett McCracken, a CT film critic, blogs at stillsearching.wordpress.com.
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