“Are you watching me? I want to know what you are. I want to see what you see.”
Amidst the miracle of life and the beauty of this world, it’s easy to wonder why are we left to experience tragedies and unjust fate, to ask ourselves where God is when we need him the most and to ponder why even the most graceful of this world are made to suffer. In the hugely ambitious and thoroughly unique coming-of-age film The Tree of Life, acclaimed director Terrence Malick meditates on these questions that have haunted the human experience since the beginning of time. If you thought his previous movies were meandering and contemplative, wait until you see this.
Foregoing all storytelling conventions, the film is nearly devoid of a narrative structure but revolves around the all-encompassing struggle between the cruel way of nature and the loving way of grace. At the center of it all is a middle class family in 1950′s Texas which embodies this struggle within. Mr O’Brien (Brad Pitt) is a manifestation of nature, an ambiguous and overbearing figure whose capacity for admonishing his children is only exceeded by his love for them. Embittered by dashed dreams for himself and his family, his stern parenting style reflects his obsession in making sure that his boys will be tough enough for the real world.
On the other hand, Mrs O’Brien (Jessica Chastain) represents no less than saintly grace. Nurturing to a fault, she is constantly doling out playful affection and heard saying things like “unless you love, your life will flash by.” She embraces the world for what it is rather than focus on reasons to be unhappy. All of this is seen through the eyes of the main character Jack who is struggling to reconcile those two opposing philosophies as he grows from a carefree little boy (Hunter McCracken) to an unhappy and lost soul (Sean Penn).
Only his fifth movie in four decades, The Tree of Life is easily Malick’s most spiritual and metaphysical work to date. One that is deeply intimate, perhaps even autobiographical, yet absolutely epic in scope. The film opens with the O’Briens reeling from the loss of one of their sons at the tender age of 19. As the mother mourns her child asking “Lord why? Where were you?” Malick, perhaps taking on God’s perspective (yes that epic), does nothing less than connect this event with the birth of the universe, spending twenty minutes going back all the way to the beginning of time to depict the creation of all things. Perhaps this signifies that God is busy with creating, that even something as unbearable as the loss of a child is all but a tiny speck of insignificance in the grand scheme of things. This is really up to you, the viewer, to make up your mind as to what it all means because the entire film is so open to interpretation.
In this dialogue-less sequence, we watch as nebulae expand, galaxies are created, and fiery planets are formed. Life develops, at first tenuously in cellular form, soon evolving into jellyfish and then dinosaurs, before suddenly skipping back to 1950s Texas as Mrs. O’Brien gives birth to Jack. What ensues is one of the most delightful and lyrical representation of childhood ever put on film. In one moment to the next, Jack goes from a sleeping newborn to taking his first gingerly steps to running on the front lawn. It’s truly fascinating, akin to watching a consciousness progressively coming into being.
It soon becomes apparent that most of the movie are Jack’s recollections of his childhood as he ponders his conflicted relationship with his parents and how his mother got through such an unspeakable tragedy. The collection of vignettes mirrors how we remember our own childhood with a tinge of nostalgia. There are those specific moods and moments we recall vividly and others we only remember in broad strokes. Malick isn’t focused on traditional storytelling so much as he is trying to visually replicate the conscious reverie we all experience internally.
Does this all sound overwhelming or even pretentious? Absolutely, I wouldn’t blame anyone who has seen the movie for saying so. To be honest, there is little here in terms of entertainment value and this is a slow and demanding film that will drive some people to be bored to tears. There are moments that are frustratingly inscrutable, maddening even in their seeming incoherence. Malick continues to display his trademark quirks — the whispered voiceover, the constantly motioning camera, the scant dialogue and this lyrical fascination with the natural world, but The Tree of Life is about as impressionistic and experimental as it gets for a semi-mainstream Hollywood movie.
And yet, isn’t any movie that attempts to probe the limits of the human condition going to be deemed preachy and pretentious? This is an incredibly rich and symbolic film that will flood you with emotions. It asks fundamental questions about the meaning of all things and how people decide to live their lives. Why should I be a good person if my father is not? Why are the graceful of this world made to endure pain? Malick isn’t swinging for the fence as much as he is reaching for the Moon and do we truly want it any other way from one of our most visionary filmmaker?
This is reflected in the cinematography. They say that every frame of a Malick movie could be a painting, it has never been more true than in this movie. Both he and DP Emmanuel Lubezki are constantly trying to capture the perfect moment, the essence of life itself on film. The beauty of The Tree of Life is beyond words, such a feast for the eyes and the ears that it will move you to the verge of tears. It’s not a stretch of the imagination to think this is the most beautifully shot movie ever made.
On a final note, it seems completely overlooked that Malick is a prodigious director of actors. He knows how to consistently extract the most fascinating performances from his cast despite the most abstract settings and even though his actors have no idea of their place in the big picture. Brad Pitt is nothing short of riveting in the most natural performance of his career, able to be intimidating yet loving in his own odd way as a temperamental man full of life disappointment. Newcomer Hunter McCracken is a revelation, a boy who adores his mother and comes to progressively loath his father as he realizes he is becoming just like him. In a nearly dialogue-free role, Jessica Chastain is angelic (quite literally in one scene) conveying an ethereal grace without words.
Simultaneously flawed and masterful, frustrating and haunting, overwhelming and unforgettable, The Tree of Life is a polarizing work of art, the mark of a singular cinematic achievement that is certain to stand the test of time. It’s a demanding film that will most likely leave you stunned and speechless because words can hardly describe this spiritual experience. You certainly will be searching for answers long after the closing credits.
(I won’t shortchange you with a grade)
Notes: Rated PG-13 for some thematic material, 138 minutes.