As The Tree of Life’s release approaches, two pretty mundane thoughts keep nagging at me. Well, not “nagging,” exactly. More like random observations that I feel I must share:
- Despite the secrecy this film (along with so many other Terrence Malick projects) has been shrouded in, and despite the fact that so many critics and filmgoers love the idea of not knowing anything about it in advance – going in tabula rasa to let it surprise, wow, and perplex them on its own, singular terms – I actually feel like this film could benefit from some advance preparation. As a very smart man whose name escapes me right now once said of The Thin Red Line, “You kind of have to get the first viewing out of the way, so that you know what not to expect from this movie.” That seems about right: Malick’s films are different, to be sure, and in a perfect universe where we’re all able to willfully divorce ourselves from any kind of expectation or preconception of a given film, going in rasa would be ideal. But we don’t live in that perfect world. We live in a world where we’ve been conditioned to expect certain things, and the conditioning runs deeper than we may expect.
- That said, I think The Tree of Life is actually Malick’s most accessible movie in many a moon. And I might come to regret having said this, but I have this sneaking suspicion that this film might wind up being quite successful, box-office-wise. I could be wrong. I’m no good at this sort of forecasting (thankfully) and Terrence Malick films notoriously don’t make much money. And yes, it’s opening in limited release, so who knows what the landscape will look like after this weekend. Never mind the fact that the film doesn’t really have anything one could accurately call a story, and that one of its biggest stars is only in it for, what, 10 or 15 minutes total? But for all its wild stylization and elliptical presentation, for all its earnest ruminating and wild, wide thematic connections, its emotions are very direct. Plus, there’s the possibility it could tap into other audiences: As a friend and fellow critic said the other day, “I call bullshit on any church who block-booked tickets for The Passion of the Christ but doesn’t do the same for The Tree of Life.”
Of course, The Tree of Life hasn’t become a weapon in the culture wars (unlike Mel Gibson’s film) so it hasn’t been featured on the Drudge Report or on talk radio or Fox News or wherever, which means some of the folks who made The Passion of the Christ such a hit haven’t even heard of it. And maybe its message of acceptance, generosity, and grace will ironically be too much for some so-called Christians to bear. And yes, it does feature an entire section on the origins of the universe, so those who think the world is only 4,000 years old may well be alienated by it. But if Malick’s vision of creation can move even a godless unbeliever like me, maybe there’s some hope for true believers as well. (Even if my choice for the most devout and powerful film ever made about Jesus was in fact boycotted vehemently by the Christian right.)