The Tree of Life
Review by Thomas W. Campbell
Original review posted on May 27, 2011
The Tree of Life, the fifth film by director Terrence Malick, is a masterpiece of narrative and style. While this may not help in the marketplace against X-Men, Green Lanterns and drunk bachelors in Bangkok, it will resonate with anyone willing to be challenged–and rewarded–by an unconventional and completely original filmmaker at the top of his game.
Malick’s previous films–Badlands (1973), Days of Heaven (1978), The Thin Red Line (1998), and The New World (2005) have for the most part stood the test of time. Each film features actors who were–or were to become–major stars. And each reveals its narrative in less obviously dramatic and more thoughtful ways than other films of their genres. Badlands slows down the drive of its predecessor, Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde, and allows us to feel the way Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek’s pre-punk rebels are part of the landscape that created them. Days of Heaven takes a doomed love triangle and places it into the seductive light (much of it shot in the magic hour just before sunset) and landscapes of the Midwest. The Thin Red Line is a richly character-based war drama that explores death and loss from an unexpectedly philosophical viewpoint. The New World examines the first meeting between Native Americans and Europeans in a way that makes the pristine forests as important as the characters. Malick has a talent to transcend what others might see as limitations of genres and to turn them into meditations on the essential questions of life–why are we here? What should we do about it? What is the true nature of the world itself?
The Tree of Life begins with a quotation from the book of Job, a story from the Hebrew Bible recently explored by the Coen Brothers in A Serious Man (2009). Job, a pious man with numerous sons and daughters, worships God but is tested severely after Satan convinces God that Job is only reverent because of the worldly possessions and good fortune that God has given him. When his possessions are taken away, his family killed and his body infected with terrible boils Job still does not curse his God–and instead begins a long period of meditation fueled by the intense philosophical debate of a handful of friends who have gathered around him. One of the central themes of Jobs’s ordeal is the question “Why do terrible things happen to good people”? Malick is less interested in the conceit that such a question can be answered than he is in exploring the minds and experiences of characters acute enough to struggle with the unanswerable.
The Tree of Life is a film with epic scope–the story spans a time frame even greater than Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey–from an initial present day sometime in the 1950’s it loops back to a time that seems to represent the formation of the universe, rolls through the creation of life itself on the planet earth, introduces us to the age of the dinosaurs, and ultimately slams us in the head with a massive meteor strike that initiates the global ice-age, ultimately setting the table for the dawn of man. The birth of life is no cheesy ceiling show like the one watched by James Dean and his pals at the astronomy museum in Rebel Without a Cause–it’s modern 3-D animation at it’s best–colorful, liquid, realistic in a way that we can only dream about in our most vivid fantasies. The screen becomes a god’s eye view of the most dynamic moments in the physical history of time.
The basic story is about a father, his wife, and their three sons. Brad Pitt plays Mr. O’Brien, a serious man who gave up his dream to be a classical musician but still indulges in the piano and pipe organ–punishing himself for the choices he did not make. He works for a factory that does unspecified work for the military, probably manufacturing airplane parts, and drops the weight of his own disappointment onto his boys–telling them that if you work hard you can achieve your dreams. Meanwhile his own hopes for success at work and in his private life slip away. Jessica Chastain plays Mrs. O’Brien, the yin to her husband’s yang, a gentle force of nature who tries to give the boys back the air that her husbands sucks from their lives. In their suburban middle-class home she watches at the dinner table as Mr. O’Brien torments each of her sons with questions about their chores, makes demands that they remain quiet, and lords over them to the point that taking a piece of meatloaf from the serving tray becomes a ticking time bomb for Jack, the oldest son. Pitt and Chastain’s performances are powerful and ultimately heartbreaking–the tension between them bubbles and breaks in ways reminiscent of recent performances by Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart in Rabbit Hole (2010) and Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet in Revolutionary Road (2008)–there was love there, and may still be, but anger and pain has crushed the grace that it once promised. Jack, their son, is the third main character in the film–played by Hunter McCracken as a boy and Sean Penn as an adult. The bulk of the film is a flashback and McCracken’s performance is a centerpiece of the story–in many ways it is the central filter for the audience’s perception of events. As in all of Malick’s work the acting is outstanding–natural, realistic, dynamic, and mysterious in a way that creates suspense and even anxiety as characters threaten to make choices that we somehow hope they will avoid.
Loss of innocence and discovery of the pain that the world can inflect on body and soul is a theme that runs throughout the events of The Tree of Life. Everyone in the film goes through it, including the younger sons of the family. But Jack is the vehicle that Malick uses to drill deepest into this concept. He feels the loss of his mother’s attention when his first young brother is born, he is the first to receive the brunt of his father’s anger, he longs silently for the attention of the woman next door, breaking into her home and stealing a personal item, and finally spirals into confusion and despair that threatens himself, his family. He seems to stand at the precipice of becoming the kind of sociopath represented by Kit, played with such seduction and ruthlessness by Martin Sheen in Badlands.
The brilliance of Malick’s film craft is that it succeeds as such a high level in every aspect of the cinematic experience. It’s never been more true than in The Tree of Life. The film is successful in so many ways that the sheer audacity of the achievement pretty much ensures it will not find a mainstream audience–even with Brad Pitt and Sean Penn in starring roles. Malick’s narrative technique is so unusual, and so specific to his goals as a storyteller that he seems to be refuting the basic rules of classical cinema. He uses interior voice in ways that almost negates the necessity for sync-sound dialogue. The film opens with a mysterious orange floating image against black and a man’s voice who says softly the words “Brother. Mother.”, and states that it was they who led him to “your door”. The film cuts to a pastoral farm setting and we see a woman, Mrs. OBrien, moving slowly through a field, there are animals, flowers, a beautiful sky. And the voice over continues. She tells us that there is choice we can make–between nature and grace. That grace “accepts,” and nature wants only “to please itself,” referring it seems to the the Christian theological idea that nature is where the common experiences of daily life occur and in grace is found the experiences of the spiritual, the unseen and hidden domain that remains beyond our touch. This is the conflict that Malick will explore–the physical nature of a world created by the mysterious forces of universal conflict and the yearnings of humans to believe, against all experience it seems, that there is reason for our existence. More than any film I can recall The Tree of Life is driven by the soul searching questions revealed through the use of interior dialogue–a technique Malick has used in his previous films (Spacek’s narration in Badlands is central to the film’s appeal) but pushes into overdrive in this one. When one person narrates we feel centered by the point of view, guiding us towards an single interpretation of events. But three narrators–four if we consider that Jack’s search for faith is heard through his adult mind and his mind as a young teenager–creates a different and much broader perspective. It’s like we are sampling the human psyche, finding parallels and differences, listening like a god might eavesdrop on the human experience, similar to the way the angel in Wim Wender’s Wings of Desire (1987) listened into the thoughts of random people.
The Tree of Life is seamless in the way it weds story, picture and sound. Emmanuel Lubezki’s camera work, often hand-held, bathed in natural light, fluid and mobile, is quite extraordinary. The second sequence of the film introduces the O’Briens in the one truly happy moment they share together, at play in the backyard, taking turns on a swing, gliding through the air. The camera starts as a point of view, revealing the experience of soaring back and forth on a home-built swing that hangs from a large tree branch. When liberated from the swing, the camera continues to sway as it moves through space, documenting the moment in a physical way that replicates the exhilarating joy the family is experiencing. The film is filled with extreme close-ups–Jessica Chastain’s thin ephemeral face and der-like eyes, Hunter McCracken’s quizzical gaze at the new world opening up to him as he grows and encounters more of the mysterious life he has been born into, Brad Pitt’s sculpted military-like face with the bulging vein pulsing up the back of his neck, Tye Sheridan (young brother R.L.), with an angelic face and trusting gaze, Sean Penn’s craggy beaten face, still filled years later with the pain and confusion about the loss of his younger brother in the overseas war. The camera lingers closely to each, never letting us forget the suffering and spiritual trial that life and death has brought. The editing is superb–there were five editors credited but the style is unmistakably Malick’s.
The overall structure of the film is unconventional in the way that it cuts through time based on theme as opposed to narrative function. The extended time traveling “birth of the world” sequence is hinted at early in the film but is fully revealed when the O’Briens are jarred from a life of (perceived) joy by the pain of loosing R.L., the gentlest son. The physical relationship of sequences, scenes, and even shots create parallels that draw us deeper and deeper into a theme that somehow–through chance or divine construct–everything is mysteriously related. Pitt’s father broods as he strides across elevated walkways in the massive factory where he works, Penn’s Jack glides through the hallways and elevators of the giant glass and metal modern buildings like in a daydream, still overwhelmed by his loss. Young Jack’s anger at the world turns him against R.L., who he threatens in a series of escalating events. A carnivorous dinosaur encounters a helpless creature, forcing the smaller animal’s face into the earth with a powerful foot. Jack watches the woman next door through her window, staring at her body dressed only in an nightgown. Later he peers around a bedroom door, watching his mom in a similar nightgown, the same look of wonder and fear on his face. The mysterious orange ghost-like image, floating and slowly transforming against a pure black background, seen at the beginning and opening of the film, is mirrored in nature by thousands of bats evolving as though a single organism across an urban skyline. The editing within scenes, and between shots, is often exuberant; Malick’s use of jump cuts expands the connection between the physical and psychological. The mismatched frames give us the sense of life as the characters are perceiving it–elation, anger, pain–the editing creates an expressionistic rendition of their interior states.
Malick’s use of music and sound is unusual–he elevates the audio experience of the film to a level of importance that feels equal to the images. The original music by Alexandre Desplate and the dynamic use of sacred and religious classical music–throughout the present day sequences and in the historical animations–is stunning. Malick is also a master of using sound to create a texture of realism and to subtly guide our emotions. In the tensest scenes between Jack and his younger brother there are sounds of thunder–small explosions somewhere in the distance–even as the sun flows through the wooded forest.
Terrence Malick is a unique and challenging filmmaker–he creates thoughtful and handcrafted work without a frame of throwaway material. A more challenging filmgoing experience than some may wish to experience, The Tree of Life is also a film that especially rewards a second viewing. It is substantial, complex and refuses to pretend that there are simple questions and easy answers in life.
Thomas W. Campbell