Well. That was something all right. In the spirit of the film itself, this is less a review and more an exploration of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life which is easily the furthest removed of all the director’s films from the conventions of a screen story. Looking at his career progression from 1974’s relatively concrete Badlands onward, that shouldn’t be a surprise. His movies have been increasingly interested in noodling around in the margins, even if they’re ultimately moored to a digestible narrative. Well, The Tree of Life is Malick Unplugged – unplugged from the conventions of storytelling that is. This will provide endless fuel for Malick’s detractors while also probably dividing his fans. Frankly, I doubt he’d have it any other way. It’s the sort of movie that refuses to string you along with “what happens next,” but instead asks you to engage with it and think about it and absorb it. It’s a movie to be experienced and felt. Though it is at times inscrutable and didn’t quite provide me the emotional kick which overwhelmed me in Malick’s The New World, it was still completely captivating and totally exhilarating.
Though The Tree of Life is indeed unhinged, that’s not to say there’s no there. At its core is the surprisingly simple and beautiful, yet sad and often painful story of the O’Briens, a 1950’s Texas family: a husband (Brad Pitt), a wife (Jessica Chastain) and three little boys. We know from the fractured chronology in which events are presented that one of the boys will die when he is 19 and this lends a haze of melancholy to the normal up and down familial rhythms. It’s also the launching point for one of Malick’s grand questions revolving around the idea God. “He’s in God’s hands now,” the mother is assured. But she protests: “He was in God’s hands the whole time, wasn’t he?” The implication of course is that God made this happen, but there is no explanation why.
This is just one facet of a bigger picture that Malick is probing. That picture begins with the faint sounds of surf and ends at the ocean’s edge – the fluid dividing line between land and sea, pregnant with the power of transformation and, like God, the embodiment of both creation and destruction. Within this force of change, Malick is looking for lines of demarcation (or perhaps lines of connection) between God and man, grace and nature, mother and father, life and death – enormous, basic themes that cinema so rarely has the nerve to tackle anymore. His striving for answers is surprisingly blunt, though some might argue it’s banal. I find it refreshing, though I have to admit some frustration that Malick raises more questions than he answers. I suppose that is to be expected and perhaps even desired.
Beyond Malick’s impressionistic, prismatic central family story, he takes several leaps of fancy that are sure to be controversial. There are special effects laden forays through the cosmos from our own sun all the way to the Horse Head Nebula where stars are born; through time from the age of mankind back to the formation of the Earth; and through nature from the tiniest one-celled organisms to the largest dinosaurs; and finally through a lifetime from child to adult. It’s a God’s eye view of the universe and it puts into context the cosmically minor concerns of one family and their ups and downs. But to those individuals, from their perspective, the events that happen to them are everything. We don’t perceive the continuum upon which we exist in time and in space. There is only the then and now, the joy and pain, the love and hate. These are the things with which we are equipped to navigate our world. Ideas of God are supposed to provide comfort, but they also open up an endless universe in which to get lost. It’s tempting to think Malick favors a more pragmatic approach to our existence. As Mr. O’Brien puts it: “While you’re looking for something to happen, that was it. That was life. You lived it.”
As potentially distracting and controversial as Malick’s headier excursions are (Douglas Trumbull acted as a visual effects consultant on the film and many will be reminded at times of the ending of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey), the beating heart of the film returns time and again to the O’Briens. Malick’s evocation of boyhood is one of the most honest I’ve seen. He perfectly captures the the innocence and the evil, and the wonder and the horror like few others have. He also uncomfortably distills a family dynamic that will strike home for many people, especially those who grew up before the 1980s. There is the father, protecting but stern and frightening and also a bit resentful of his children. There is the mother, life giving, nurturing, and playful. Caught between them are the older son who clashes with the father because they’re so much alike and the middle child, the creative one who favors the mother. It’s a dynamic of opposites and of tensions that Malick repeats, fractal-like, on infinitely bigger and smaller scales throughout the film.
Whatever you make of Malick’s ruminations – I don’t care to judge them or even pretend that I completely understand them after one viewing – technically the film is unassailable. The hazy and at times dreamlike cinematography is predictably gorgeous with Emmanuel Lubezki’s constantly moving camera searching and probing each scene as though looking for answers. The production design of long time Malick collaborator Jack Fisk perfectly evokes the 1950s. The score is made up of a panoply of classical pieces ranging from Brahms to Bach, to Mahler, Smetana, Holst and Respighi. It is filled in with an original score by Alexandre Desplat. As a whole, it is at once suitably dramatic and mysterious just like The Tree of Life itself.
As Mr. O’Brien, Brad Pitt shows us more of the unpredictability he offered in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. There’s a harder edge to him in his dramatic scenes contrasted with a warmth and a protectiveness born of fatherhood. Jessica Chastain is a little harder to get a bead on as Mrs. O’Brien. The character tends to fall into the background whenever her husband is around, only to spring forward in a flash of color and playfulness when she’s alone with her sons. She tries to be the disciplinarian, but she just doesn’t have it in her and the boys know it. A special word too should be reserved for the believable, lived-in and naturalistic performances of newcomers Hunter McCracken, Laramie Eppler and Tye Sheridan as the three O’Brien sons. These are wide-eyed, desentimentalized portrayals of childhood and they are fantastic.
Those who already love Malick will likely rally behind the film while those who find him pretentious will only have their opinions amplified by The Tree of Life. I tend to approach him cautiously and on a film by film basis. While I was hoping for an emotional ride that was as captivating as the philosophical journey, I can’t wait to revisit the film and argue about it with other people. I look forward to peeling back its layers and exploring its mysteries. I don’t know if I’ll find anything inside it, but I wish more filmmakers would take the chances that Malick has taken.
The Tree of Life. USA 2011. Written and directed by Terrence Malick. Cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki. Original music by Alexandre Desplat. Edited by Hank Corwin, Jay Rabinowitz, Daniel Rezende, Billy Weber and Mark Yoshikawa. Production design by Jack Fisk. Starring Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, Jessica Chastain, Hunter McCracken, Laramie Eppler, Tye Sheridan and Fiona Shaw. 2 hours 18 minutes. MPAA rated PG-13. 5 stars (out of 5)
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