The Tree of Life

The Tree of Life. Well, it’s beautiful. And huge bonus points to Malick for ridiculous ambition and the credibility to do it at scale with big names. But in the same way that I wouldn’t necessarily recommend movies like Solaris or 2001 or Once Upon a Time in the West or Koyaanisqatsi or something, I don’t recommend this one if you’re not willing to sit through some wanky, gorgeous, exhausting, melodramatic sequences. I felt really, really skeptical when I saw the trailers, skeptical when I started, rolled my eyes a few times when I was watching… and yet I’m warming to the idea of watching it again. In the moments where there’s actually acting, the performers are excellent. Sometimes it takes you one viewing to figure out the rules and another to participate/surrender like you need to. My current Terrence Malick rankings:

  1. Days of Heaven (with a probably insurmountable lead)
  2. The New World
  3. Badlands
  4. The Tree of Life (or tied for third?)

With this one out of the way, it’s on to The Thin Red Line.

The New World

The New World. In which the title is a metaphor. Terrence Malick is a seductive director. I thought it started a little conventionally, but partway in, it turned into something special. You’re forced to set aside Disney memories and whatever historical précis you’ve got leftover from school. Interesting to see what expected bits of history and relationship development that he delays or leaves out completely, or proceeds quickly through and moves on. Lots of amazing nature scenes and life out of doors. I love the contrast of Smith’s time in the lush forests, and then the return to grey, denuded, muddy Jamestown. Malick uses narration again, which is kind of a clever cheat. You allow characters to voice their thoughts over visuals, and that keeps you from having to dialogue all the time. Couple that with the often elliptical camera–characters rarely face to face, often staggered in distance or in gentle motion, seen over-the-shoulder or trailing behind–you just get to gaze and treat your eyes and ears. I like Ebert’s observation: “The events in his film, including the tragic battles between the Indians and the settlers, seem to be happening for the first time.” Right now I think Days of Heaven is still my favorite Malick, with Badlands coming in close third.

Badlands

Badlands. My second Malick. Like in Days of Heaven, which I really liked, we have another young female narrator, but this one, though older, seems more innocent and caught up in fairy tale language. Both of these characters are caught up in their own narrative, their own little world. Inspired by real people. Martin Sheen is really, really good here. Lots of eye candy and some great moments in the soundtrack. I’ve got to see The Thin Red Line soon.

Days of Heaven

Days of Heaven. My first Malick film, and luckily an interesting, beautiful one. The story has scattershot narration by a young kid. Sometimes she has wise observations and sometimes she has immaterial asides. With this distance in age, we sort of see the characters in the central love triangle at a remove, a little more inscrutable. We see the drama and the tragedy but Malick’s not looking for your tears, I don’t think. The story’s too thin to bear it. The magic’s in the editing. The shots are elliptical, working by collage and juxtaposition and suggestion. Check out some lovely stills. Nice soundtrack from Mr. Morricone, to boot.