For Your Consideration – Achievement in Directing – Terrence Malick
Film: The Tree of Life
Director: Terrence Malick
Screenplay: Terrence Malick
Realistic Nominations: Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Cinematography, Best Sound Mixing/Editing, Best Visual Effects, Best Picture
To the surprise of some, Terrence Malick’s challenging, divisive and indispensable spiritual odyssey has stayed alive in the awards conversation, racking up a number of nominations and wins from critics organizations, most recently the Online Film Critics Society. Such success has no guarantee of Oscar recognition, however, and a film as heady as The Tree of Life still faces an uphill climb to the Kodak Theater. Craft nods and even Best Picture are certainly in the cards, but none of those would make a whole lot of sense without recognizing the singular vision behind this film. While not necessarily his best work (but, let’s be honest, how many filmmakers have ever topped The Thin Red Line?), it is not unreasonable to suggest that this is perhaps the defining film of his career, taking all of his artistic risks and thematic ambitions and combining them into a single motion picture.
Malick’s aim seems as high as to be foolhardy: explore the very nature of existence through a mosaic of one man’s fleeting yet indelible childhood memories. Yet he accomplishes – spectacularly – exactly that, and does so by upending traditional notions of image, sound and plot not to provide convenient answers, but to represent this eternal, universal search as a uniquely personal experience and reverie. I struggle to recall the last film I witnessed that evoked such grandeur yet never felt anything less than deeply intimate in scope.
Indeed, the film’s point-of-view is almost radically subjective, treating its own constantly roving camera as a fellow participant in Jack’s search for meaning; feeling every individual moment experienced by its characters without ever appearing to embody any one of them.
Take for example one of the earliest scenes in the film, when Mr. O’Brien receives the call about his son’s death. Suddenly, the shot jags downward, as if it too is struck with paralyzing anguish. Or when Mrs. O’Brien blissfully spins her child around before pointing to the sky and declaring, “This is where God lives.” There is a brief pause, as though the camera is searching – as a child would – for a trace of this Supreme Being within the vast, empty sky. God is silent to the child, and by extension to us. These are just a few of the seemingly simple yet potent gestures that become characteristic of Malick’s profound empathy.
Expanding from single, minute decisions to more broad undertakings, his Creation of the Universe is already legendary, and rightly so, as it may very well be the most visually daring experimental sequence attempted since the climax of 2001: A Space Odyssey. It is a glorious, breathtaking experience that recounts the beginning of everything in a way both celebratory and mournful. We see the evolution of energy and gas into matter, and matter being destroyed and reformed into planets before settling on a single rock with a small warm pond, which of course is the wellspring of our origins. Far from being simple eye candy, these scenes of beauty being forged through the harsh fires of creation repeat themselves through the vignettes of the struggle between Jack’s relationship with his gentle mother and strict father.
The central conflict in Jack’s childhood – superficially with his father but mainly within himself – is presented elliptically, which perhaps not surprisingly has been a major complaint among the film’s detractors. To some, The Tree of Life is too shapeless, too inscrutable in its story to have any weight to it. But I would argue that by demanding only immediately recognizable forms of cause-and-effect narrative, we are cutting ourselves off from insight that cinema is uniquely equipped to express. There is careful orchestration of everything seen here; each scene structured like a piece of music. He is not showing us an isolated event, but a series of moments all feeding into his central ideas of the dichotomy between nature and grace. This stringing together of seemingly random sequences results in something that makes perfect sense, but on an intuitive, emotional level rather than a descriptive one. “Abstract,” in this case, should not be dismissed as “pointless.”
In another divisive gambit, the film ends with Jack and his family on a white-sanded beach, reunited and left to walk the shore and look on the seemingly infinite ocean beyond them. To what some call dull I believe to be revealing of what it truly means “to be.” Jack is never given answers to his questions, and neither are we, but there is comfort in knowing that at least our aching yet so far fruitless search for meaning in a seemingly meaningless (and meaninglessly painful) existence is a shared one. Despite all of the suffering of our lives, we are not alone. None of this is communicated through dialogue or voiceover, but in the simple staging of a reunion at the edge of a shore.
In a medium that gives itself far too often to prosaic distinctions – in genre, execution, etc. – The Tree of Life is a reminder of the essential versatility of cinema. Here we have a filmmaker who found in one man’s grief the experiences of childhood, and blasts off from there into the origins of the world. These are specific experiences that Malick is presenting, but he links this to the human search for “Why” that can be rigorously engaged and debated by its audience. If that is not worthy of an award called “Achievement in Directing,” I’m not sure what is.
Tags: Best Director, Circuit Considerations, divisive films, masterpiece, Terrence Malick, The Tree of Life