Terrence Malick’s latest film premiered last Autumn to largely mixed reviews but whilst it is the most extreme film he has made in his trademark style, it has a refreshing boldness to it along with some beautiful sequences.
Malick’s work has frequently eschewed conventional notions of filmmaking with their sparse dialogue, dreamy visuals and obsession with nature.
This has been amplified since his return to Hollywood in 1998 after a self-imposed 20 year exile, where films such as The Thin Red Line (2005), The New World (2005) and The Tree of Life (2011) have gone even further than his earlier work Badlands (1973) and Days of Heaven (1978).
He has never been afraid to tackle big themes such as love, death, nature or even the creation of life itself.
In doing so he has also established certain stylistic flourishes: hushed interior monologues; shots of plants; and use of classical music.
With To the Wonder he has taken his trademark elements and turned them up to the nth degree, but whilst the end result falls short of his best films, it is by no means the unintentional work of self-parody that some have suggested.
The story centres on a man (Ben Affleck) torn between two women: Marina (Olga Kurylenko), a European he has met in Paris who comes back to the United States with him, and Jane (Rachel McAdams), the old lover he reconnects with from his hometown in Oklahoma.
In addition, there is a priest (Javier Bardem) struggling with his faith and lack of hope in the world.
They are the basic building blocks of the story but Malick does something much more radical with the narrative, stitching together what appears to be highly improvised sequences in which characters say little or no conventional dialogue.
If this was any other director then we could be in serious trouble, but with Malick he somehow manages to keep things interesting as the characters thoughts and actions wash over us in a kind of cinematic reverie.
It helps that he is one of the great visual stylists in the history of cinema and aided by his cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, puts some remarkable imagery on-screen.
As the characters walk around, often tracked by a seemingly ever-present Steadicam, we get to see them engage in a loose and fluid way that not only suits the narrative approach but after a while becomes hypnotic, seeming imitating the pace of everyday existence.
There is also Malick’s trademark use of magic hour, stunning use of natural light and interesting use of locations, which include Paris, Normandy and Bartlesville, Oklahoma.
Plenty of viewers will balk at the methods of To the Wonder but the sheer audacity of the execution is something to behold.
Festival goers took note of the Redbud Pictures LLC signs throughout the grounds alerting the public of filming. Redbud Pictures was incorporated in Oklahoma and Texas in the spring of 2010. A representative in the Texas Secretary of State’s office confirmed Terrence Malick is the manager of Redbud Pictures. Actress Olga Kurylenko was filmed interlacing with the Indian Summer crowd and was also filmed twirling with a local girl, who’s parents were taken aside to sign a release. Locals were content to watch Hollywood unfold before them and remained respectful of Malick’s film crew while they moved freely, without security, throughout the Indian Summer crowd.
Note the similarities between the two different shoots – both involve crowds at a festival and the production company happens to have been based in Bartlesville and Austin.
Could it be that Bale was being filmed for The Burial?
Both have also been incorrectly labelled as difficult, divisive films – 2001 was a major critical and financial success but because four prominent New York critics disliked it, was labelled as getting a ‘mixed’ response.
Malick’s latest film currently has outstanding critical scores on review aggregation sites like Metacritic (85), Rotten Tomatoes (85) and a very respectable IMDb rating of 7.9, despite some critics recycling the words ‘pretentious’ and ‘perfume ad’.
Playboy: If life is so purposeless, do you feel its worth living?
Kubrick: Yes, for those who manage somehow to cope with our mortality. The very meaninglessness of life forces a man to create his own meaning.
Children, of course, begin life with an untarnished sense of wonder, a capacity to experience total joy at something as simple as the greenness of a leaf; but as they grow older, the awareness of death and decay begins to impinge on their consciousness and subtly erode their joie de vivre (a keen enjoyment of living), their idealism – and their assumption of immortality.
As a child matures, he sees death and pain everywhere about him, and begins to lose faith in the ultimate goodness of man. But if he’s reasonably strong – and lucky – he can emerge from this twilight of the soul into a rebirth of life’s élan (enthusiastic and assured vigour and liveliness).
Both because of and in spite of his awareness of the meaninglessness of life, he can forge a fresh sense of purpose and affirmation. He may not recapture the same pure sense of wonder he was born with, but he can shape something far more enduring and sustaining.
The most terrifying fact about the universe is not that it is hostile but that it is indifferent; but if we can come to terms with this indifference and accept the challenges of life within the boundaries of death – however mutable man may be able to make them – our existence as a species can have genuine meaning and fulfilment. However vast the darkness, we must supply our own light.
UK cinemagoers can now finally see Terrence Malick’s latest film but how does it hold up after all the buzz and anticipation?
Ever since his debut Badlands (1973) screened to acclaim at the New York Film Festival nearly 40 years ago, a Terrence Malick film has become something of an event.
One of the most audacious directorial debuts in US cinema was followed five years later with Days of Heaven (1978), a troubled production which fortunately yielded one of the most visually remarkable films of the 1970s.
Then there followed a twenty year period where Malick didn’t make any movies, a time which stoked his legend and made people revisit the extraordinary beauty and craftsmanship of his work and cemented his place in the canon of American cinema.
Just when it seemed he would become the J.D. Salinger of US cinema, in the mid-90s it emerged that he was actually returning with an adaptation of the World War II novel The Thin Red Line (1998), which has the distinction of being one of the greatest and most unusual war films ever released by a major studio.
Six years later he made The New World (2005), a retelling of the Pocahontas story which contained the same slow-burn ecstasy as his previous work along with some breathtaking use of imagery and music.
Malick remains an enigma as his refusal to do any publicity or play by conventional Hollywood practice is matched by an extensive network of admirers and supporters throughout the very system he flouts.
Up to this point his forty year career has been highly singular.
Not since Stanley Kubrick has a filmmaker achieved such creative control nor inspired such reverential awe amongst his peers and true cineastes.
Financing for this film was presumably a bit trickier than his last two, but River Road Entertainment and producer Bill Pohlad managed to raise the reported $32 million budget and followed the recent Malick formula of casting a big star alongside talented newcomers.
The production was three years in the making, with the bulk of photography taking place in 2008 and various other elements stretched out until it eventually premièred at Cannes back in May.
Malick was actually spotted at the festival, but the producers accepted the award on his behalf and there was a wonderful symmetry to The Tree of Life winning a trophy of golden leaves.
Over the last few weeks Fox Searchlight have given it a platform release and amongst discerning film goers it has become one of the must-see events of the summer.
After all, this is a work by one of America’s most revered directors featuring one of the biggest movie stars on the planet.
But exactly is The Tree of Life all about?
It charts the memories of an architect (Sean Penn) as he remembers his childhood growing up in 1950s Texas, with two contrasting parents: his stern father (Brad Pitt), loving mother (Jessica Chastain) and two brothers.
At the same time, there is an extended sequence which explores the beginnings of creation and the development of life.
But the surprising aspect of the film is how these seemingly disparate strands do actually mesh.
Whilst it may divide opinion, there is nothing here that should perturb anyone with a genuinely open mind.
It is difficult to discuss specific story points without spoilers, but this is not some kind of art house indulgence but an inspired meditation on human existence and memory.
The signature Malick motifs are here: internal monologue voiceover, magic hour visuals and elliptical editing, and it follows themes he has previously explored, such as life, death and the nature of man.
These two ways are embodied in the characters of the father and mother but also relate to any living thing in the history of the world, which is why the inclusion of Malick staples such as creatures and plants is not only appropriate but significant.
That the film relates these to the story of Penn’s character and his memories of childhood is part of its particular wonder: it is almost as if Malick was born to make this.
Parallels have been drawn to the director’s own life story and there is no doubt that this is an acutely personal film which I suspect has been brewing inside of him for a very long time.
Some viewers of a particular experience may find certain sequences hit home with an almost unbearable emotional intensity.
But the lasting power of The Tree of Life is how manages to find the universal within the particular.
Viewers may be jolted by the juxtaposition of the cosmic with the domestic, but aren’t experiences of childhood and our later memories filled with such existential questions?
Is there a creator? Why are we born in order to die? What happens in the afterlife?
These are pretty big questions and the fact that Malick tackles them head on with an admirable lack of detachment is actually amazing in this day and age of recycled narratives and endless sequels.
Cinema is a medium wonderfully suited to getting inside people’s thoughts and feelings and Malick is a past master at capturing both the internal and external landscapes of the human experience.
That he does so again here with his impeccable artistry is to be richly savoured as the technical achievements of The Tree of Life are extraordinary.
For the Texas sections, cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki creates stunning images with a fluid intimacy that captures both the wonder of growing up and the internal emotions and memories of the major characters.
He used natural light and Steadicam to amazing effect in The New World (2005) and here he repeats the ecstatic brilliance of that film with photography that is appropriately transcendent.
The actors respond with considerable distinction: Pitt captures the simmering frustration and deep love of a stern but loving father; Chastain is magnetic as the ethereal mother; whilst the child actors – Hunter McCracken, Tye Sheridan and Laramie Eppler – fully convince. (Incidentally, Eppler looks uncannily like Pitt, although they aren’t related).
Penn has a much smaller role but he is a key presence and powerfully depicts a haunted, introspective man reflecting on his life. His role is brief in terms of screen time, but he is an important lynchpin for what happens.
Malick fans may like to note that Penn’s sequences are the only one Malick has ever set in the present – all of his previous films have been period pieces and there is a weird jolt at seeing mobile phones and skyscrapers here.
As for the scenes involving the rather large subject of the creation of mankind, they not only convince but provide something of a master class in the visual effects work of the last forty years.
Supervised by Dan Glass, they are genuinely awesome blend of high-resolution optical photography, modern CGI and unspecified trippy stuff which looks like nothing I’ve ever seen on a cinema screen.
The presence of VFX pioneer Douglas Trumbull on the effects team is obviously going to invite comparisons to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) but I suspect his own film Brainstorm (1983) may have also been an influence in hiring him (although a forgotten sci-fi thriller it has sequences which visualise similar themes).
There is a grand sweep to the creation sequences which involves spectacular footage of natural phenomena, both in space and on earth: planets, meteors, volcanic eruptions, waterfalls, microscopic cells, jellyfish and even dinosaurs are all used.
Careful viewers may actually notice how they link to the Texas story, as there appear to be subtle visual and thematic clues between the creation of life and the individual lives depicted on screen.
Some stunning sound work throughout the film also helps anchor two seemingly disparate worlds, as the rumblings of nature and space are contrasted with the carefully constructed scenes of the family at home. (Malick aficionados might want to listen carefully for a particular recurring sound that also appears in the The Thin Red Line).
Although Alexandre Desplat worked on a score, Malick has opted to go for a score filled with classical composers, such as Bach, Berlioz, Smetena, Mahler, Holst, Górecki and John Tavener.
Again there may be comparisons to Kubrick, but Malick has his own style and edits to music like no other filmmaker working today, including some exhilarating sequences as the young boys grow up.
The period feel of 1950s small-town Texas is expertly captured by production designer Jack Fisk and the costumes by Jacqueline West give it a vivid period feel, which neatly evokes the power of childhood memories.
The Tree of Life is not a film that will be embraced by everyone and I suspect some may resent the fact that this is pure, distilled Malick with no compromise to conventional Hollywood storytelling clichés.
It is unashamedly ambitious and emotional, which are two qualities that put some audiences immediately on the back foot.
But there is a compelling story here, which is clearer than one might initially think – it just happens to be told in an unconventional way.
Malick has always made films built to last, even if recurring themes and motifs have vexed some viewers of his most recent work.
But the mere existence of this film in 2011 is almost as miraculous as the mysteries depicted within it.
A sublime work in the truest sense of the word, its beauty, vastness and grandeur make it quite something to behold.
It will probably be debated and thought about for a long time, which is entirely appropriate as it both reflects the questions and feelings of life itself.
Recently, Ray Pride published a 2001 memo David Lynch wrote to cinema ‘projection departments’ in order to remind them of the aspect ratio, sound (‘3db hotter than normal’) and slight tweaks to the ‘headroom’ for screenings of Mulholland Drive.