Dance with the Devil

Dance with the Devil

Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life; David Balding’s One Lucky Elephant; Kristen Wiig’s Bridesmaids; Todd Phillips’s The Hangover Part II.


The Devil enters Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life in the guise of Toscanini. Black-browed and burning-eyed, the Prince of Evil looms on RCA’s album cover for Brahms’s Fourth—this is the 1950s, when records were played on serious furniture—lifting his hands as if commanding the spirits of the air. A typecast Satan, this Toscanini, whose idol is raised up by a beef-fed paterfamilias (Brad Pitt) the better to intimidate his sons. You’d think the demon of selfhood—the unquiet spirit who perverts love and refuses grace—might have taken some other form, since the immediate job is to mislead an overbearing crewcut engineer in Waco, Texas. Yet when the phonograph’s rumblings distract Dad at the dinner table, moving him to leap up and proudly brandish the album cover, it’s clear that the tempter has slipped into the room.

The proof? Everything had been rapturous until now. It was all gravity-free, handheld-camera views of boys tumbling across an emerald lawn, or romping through velvety twilight streets to a surge of Smetana. Life was good, and the original, all-spawning singularity stood upright and shining in God’s cosmos, and the molten flares of stars thundered and roared, and vast cascades plummeted into the depths of the picture frame. Translucent animalcules swam toward the light and coalesced, dinosaurs scampered quizzically along the lush riverbeds of Cretaceous Texas—so imbued with divine charity that roving carnivore would not stoop to maul prostrate herbivore—and Mom, a Pre-Raphaelite beauty embodied by Jessica Chastain, was always gazing up at a sun hung perpetually in the highest branches of the trees. Only when that damned Toscanini came into the picture did her green-eyed son Jack (Hunter McCracken), skinny and on the cusp of puberty, adopt a sullen glare when forced to look at Dad, all the while standing with his elbows stuck out as if he were being restrained from behind.

What kind of crazy movie is this, that goes from Big Bang to last things, and in the protracted middle dwells on a season of spiritual trials for a mid-twentieth-century Everyfamily? An ineluctable movie, I’d say, since it’s made by the author of Badlands and Days of Heaven; a movie that demands to be seen and discussed, since it just won the Palme d’Or at Cannes; but, for all that, still a movie. To what genre can I assign it?

The first category that comes to mind is not cinematic but literary; The Tree of Life is a psalm or prayer. The few lines of dialogue spoken within its scenes shrink to insignificance beside the whispered voiceovers—from Mom, and from the adult Jack (Sean Penn)—addressed directly to God. “I will be true to You, whatever comes. You spoke to me from the skies, through the trees, before I knew You, before I knew I loved You. What are we to You? How did I forget You?”

But it’s a stretch to identify a filmmaker’s voice with characters’ voices, so maybe I should revise the category and call The Tree of Life a sermon. Its text, shown on screen at the very start, is God’s rebuke to Job: “Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth?” Deep into the 1950s meditation (I can’t really call it a story), when Everyfamily goes to church, an elaboration on these words rings out from the pulpit, in the longest continuous stretch of speech in the film.

So, to be more precise, The Tree of Life is a sermon about finding reconciliation within a world filled with suffering. This actually is a movie genre—a surprisingly resilient one at that. I might cite any number of cinematic theodicies, the greatest of which is Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest; but that’s no apt comparison for Malick’s film. Even when dealing with the most common experiences, Malick is a spinner of fables, not a close student of the here-and-now like Bresson; a gestural painter, not a hammer-and-chisel artist. Malick’s supercharged style of theodicy, if not his narrative sense, is more like that of the recent thriller The Adjustment Bureau. Or, if I may speak of theodicies that avoid mentioning God, I would liken Malick’s approach to Gaspar Noé’s druggy, kinesthetic submersion (in Enter the Void) into the spiritual flux that surrounds our lives, or Kubrick’s voyage in 2001: A Space Odyssey into a space-time far greater than our human concerns. If you stay for the closing credits of The Tree of Life, you will not be surprised to find Kubrick’s own Douglas Trumbull listed as visual effects consultant.

All right: call The Tree of Life a head-trip theodicy movie. But to do justice to this two and a quarter hours of hybridity, I must go further and specify that The Tree of Life is also a work of universalizing Americana. It drapes period and regional detail around types so general that they might as well be called The Boy, The Woman, The Man. Such a movie can be both satirical and heartbreaking, as you’ll know if you’ve ever watched The Crowd, but Malick isn’t one for making you choke on your laughter. He wants you to know that every atom of his 1950s Waco is made of the same stuff as the whirling galaxy; when a kid drinks from the garden hose, the gushing water (photographed by Emmanuel Lubezki) is as clear and tactile as the primordial cascade. Malick never cracks wise. As for the pain he evokes, his troubled family often seems to emerge not from the mind of God but from the darkest recesses of Norman Rockwell’s imagination.

Here we get to the Toscanini problem. Dad is the angry, rule-enforcing male in his purest form—a hulk who pushes unwanted boxing lessons on his sons and literally draws the line for them in the front yard, who obsesses over the money he hasn’t made and threatens mayhem over the respect he doesn’t get. But he’s also something more: a would-be musician, driven mad by emulating the Devil’s perfectionism. Mom, by contrast, is the loving, forgiving, faith-affirming female in purest form—and that’s it. She has no more emotional complexity than the monarch butterfly that comes to perch on her fingertips.

This imbalance has consequences. It leaves Jessica Chastain functioning more or less as a model, while Brad Pitt gets to act. He’s good, too. There’s a moment when he gives the obligatory speech about having wanted nothing more than to be Jack’s father—hollow words, as the boy knows too well—and then tries to exit with dignity, only to have his military strut stiffen into a hesitant middle-aged waddle. Pitt shows you that the man knows he’s been seen through and is embarrassed, and you ache for him. Chastain, meanwhile, dances wordlessly in midair like a figure by some Texas Chagall, or lies in a glass coffin like a housewifely Sleeping Beauty. The pictures of her are gorgeous, arresting, unforgettable, but they absorb Mom into the texture of the film, reducing her to the passive status of a creature. Dad, for all his sins and failures, is a character, who may have separated himself from God but has the drive and turmoil of a creator.

Or is the creator the grown Jack—the Houston-based architect played by Sean Penn in an excellent suit and a facial expression that cries out for Pepto-Bismol? Perhaps the best excuse for the hateful richness of the father’s image, and the adored poverty of the mother’s, is that the entire film plays out within the adult Jack’s mind, as he struggles to make peace with his memories. Whatever is banal and stereotyped in the film’s ideas would therefore testify to the limits of Jack’s mental formation, and perhaps his struggles to go beyond them. If this is a correct reading, then I can offer my final categorization: The Tree of Life is a head-trip flashback theodicy of universalizing Americana.

You have to admit, you don’t see many of those. At once deeply, dismayingly conventional and thrillingly visionary, The Tree of Life has moments that could make the most stringent atheist burst into tears or gasp with wonder, and whole thematic arcs that could make a theologian long for drink. It is a marvel and a folly, a blast of bombast (please remove your hats for the Berlioz) and an intimate confession. You need to pretend, while you watch, that you haven’t eaten of the fruit of the tree of knowledge.

* * *

The idea that everything in nature dwells in harmony, except us, runs into a useful discord in the documentary One Lucky Elephant. This is the story of David Balding, the portly, bearded impresario of a St. Louis–based circus, and the deep, companionable love he has shared with his star performer, an African elephant named Flora. Their relationship began in the mid-1980s, when Balding adopted her as an orphaned baby; but by 2000, when the film begins, Balding has resolved to separate from Flora, even though his enterprise—his whole life, it seems—was built around her. Balding explains that Flora no longer enjoys performing; in a telling phrase, he says she needs to live among her own kind and “be an elephant—not a dog, or a daughter.” But as the subsequent ten years demonstrate, it is not easy to find the right home for Flora and not easy for her to get along with fellow elephants, especially when she’s been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

No matter whether you believe that diagnosis is correct—Balding does not—you will see plenty of evidence in One Lucky Elephant that Flora is a sufficiently complicated being to feel troubled in mind. She has 10,000 pounds of personality—enough to get her into difficulties during a temporary residence at the Miami Metro Zoo, and enough to cause tension when she is transferred to Carol Buckley and Scott Blais’s Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee. The documentary’s drama—attenuated somewhat by a decade of now-and-then shooting—arises from the question of whether Flora can settle happily at the sanctuary, and whether a bereft David will ever again be permitted to see her.

One Lucky Elephant explicitly raises a question that it finds easy to answer: Should people keep elephants in captivity? (No.) Implicitly, though, it poses a stickier problem. The producers, Cristina Colissimo and Jordana Glick-Franzheim, did not just follow events but to some degree determined their course. They helped place Flora at the zoo in Miami and later at the Elephant Sanctuary; they established an endowment to provide for her care; and though they have been more than fair to Balding in the film, they could hardly have been impartial when he came into conflict with the Sanctuary. To their credit, they have not kept this a secret—though you need to do some reading to learn about it. The film itself (directed by Lisa Leeman) conveys none of this back story—though perhaps you will intuit it, if you find yourself feeling an extra measure of sympathy for Balding. It seems he gave up not only Flora but also the right to claim that she loved him.

One Lucky Elephant has its US theatrical premiere at Film Forum in New York, beginning June 8.

* * *

All honor—well, a lot—to Bridesmaids, the cheerfully indelicate confection of effluvia and tulle whipped up by Kristen Wiig, mistress of almost veiled aggression. Yes, it is liberating to see a woman-centered comedy of misbehavior; better still to see half a dozen women share in demolishing (well, up to a point) the froufrou imperative of American dream weddings; but best of all to hear Wiig voice her character’s real thoughts just loud enough to be heard. Wiig is a genius at energy-conserving defiance, speaking with the averted eyes and blurted syllables of someone who doubts she can win but is asserting herself anyway—wishfully, delusionally, irrepressibly. Paul Feig directed, and did a fine job of not getting in the way.

Todd Phillips directed The Hangover Part II, which is, like Bridesmaids, a movie that leads up to an absurdly lavish wedding. All shame—and not just because Phillips accepts as normal a class structure that Wiig regards with amused resentment. Based on the characters of the first film, with its unsavory though clever screenplay, but written by a completely different team, this Hangover wastes twenty minutes getting to the cry, “I can’t believe it’s happening again!” Then, in the further waste that ensues, it makes each recapitulation flagrantly uglier than the original, point by point. Do you remember, for example, the pet tiger and abandoned baby in The Hangover? They have now been combined into the single figure of a cigarette-smoking, dope-dealing monkey. Is it funny? Only if you would laugh at having a half-smoked cigar ground out in your face.

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