The Tree of Life is maddening, exhilarating, gorgeous, ponderous, insightful, pretentious, epic, shallow, beautiful and strange -- essentially the apotheosis of Terrence Malick's entire career. It will divide audiences like few films have in recent years.
The movie, which exists as a metaphysical meditation and a lyrical poem, focuses -- at a microcosmic level -- on the story of Jack, a jaded, middle aged man (Sean Penn) scarred by the memories of an oppressive upbringing by his father (Brad Pitt), as well as the untimely death of his younger brother.
Like all Malick movies, however, the plot is simply window dressing for the grand philosophical questions the director has been chasing for nearly four decades: the struggle between nature and grace, the duality of man, the meaning of life, and a sense of understanding and reconciliation amidst the chaos and suffering of it all.
While the film makes several missteps and is saddled with an inelegant conclusion, the sheer audacity and vision of a director willing to tackle these weighty metaphysical questions in such an unconventional, non-mainstream manner must be applauded.
The Tree of Life opens and closes with a shot of a beautiful, unearthly light that could very well represent the light of "God." It then proceeds with a Biblical quote from Job, the prophet whose righteousness was tested through suffering. Would Job renounce God if He was to test him with calamity, or would he remain true and steadfast in his conviction?
The calamity in this case is the tragic death of Jack's younger brother, who died in combat at the age 19 many years ago. Through several voiceovers -- the primary dialogue in a movie that communicates mostly through images -- we hear characters' hushed prayers, laments and frustrated questions to an omnipresent (but distant) God.
In response to her son's death, the mother asks and prays, "Why?"
Malick's visual answer to her question is undoubtedly one of The Tree of Life's most audacious and confounding sequences, itself a throwback to that other frustrating, brilliant visionary recluse, Stanley Kubrick, and his masterpiece, 2001. The audience embarks on a gorgeous, wordless cinematic tour of the history of creation, from the majestic beauty of the cosmos to the violence of the Big Bang to the first stirrings of life in the primordial soup to dinosaurs walking the Earth to a small asteroid colliding with the planet.
The random death of one young man seems trivial when measured against the balance of time, space, evolution and the origin of life.
Yet, it is also a random act of violence, a fortuitous eruption, that somehow inspired the entirety of creation on Earth.
Malick, a deeply thoughtful director who studied philosophy at Harvard and Oxford, reflects on the interconnectedness and interdependence of all living things, no matter how miniscule or magnificent. The death of a brother lingers profoundly in the life of his emotionally damaged sibling just as the Big Bang reverberates throughout the cosmos, and a relatively small meteorite crash instigates a cataclysmic ripple of death for the dinosaurs.
This belabored, but nonetheless fascinating, rumination on the duality and interconnectedness of life is further engendered in Jack by his mother, played by an ethereal Jessica Chastain, who teaches her children that there are two ways through life: the way of grace or the way of nature. The former, personified by the mother, loves unconditionally and accepts suffering and humiliation, while the latter, personified by Pitt, seeks only to please itself, have others please it and finds reasons to be unhappy despite being surrounded by blessings.
In his National Geographic slideshow segment, Malick visits this theme during the age of the CGI dinosaurs. A large dinosaur, upon witnessing a smaller, wounded dinosaur, triumphantly and inexplicably plants his foot on its head. In the grand scheme of life, per Malick, nature's brute strength and cruelty are embedded in our very DNA.
A majority of the film centers on Jack's childhood relationship with his parents and two younger siblings. Brad Pitt, with his tense, square jaw and simmering intensity, conveys an imposing presence in the lives of the children as a bitter disciplinarian who values power and strength as a means to success.
Despite having a stable job and a beautiful family, Pitt is envious of his neighbors' wealth and his perceived lack of stature. He chases patents for his designs only to fail each and every time. He fancies himself a skilled musician, and laments walking away from his passion presumably to raise his children. He chides his wife's naive outlook on life and tells Jack that her compassion and selflessness are a weakness. He demands the respect in his home that he feels eluded him in life.
Credit goes to both Pitt and Malick for creating an entirely believable American father whose behavior, although appearing careless and cruel, stems from a deep love and profound desire to protect his children from a harsh universe. However, in doing so, he fails to see the immense emotional scar tissue he leaves behind.
Jack inherits the brunt of this psychological trauma, and is perpetually torn in an internal struggle between his mother's generous "grace" and his father's brute "nature." To become his father's son, he lashes out with violence against a neighbor's property, and later against his younger brother, who we assume was favored by the father due to his artistic and musical talents.
The movie spends only a few, fleeting minutes with the adult Jack. Although he is now a successful architect, we realize he is a lost soul in this urban jungle of imposing skyscrapers, frenetic motion and cacophonous noise (only Malick can get away with a 15 second shot of a flock of birds dancing in between tall buildings!). Through impressionistic images, we assume this distance has affected his marriage as well. On the anniversary of his brother's death, Jack reflects on his idyllic past spent playing with his two brothers.
If this sounds like pretentious and heavy metaphysical questions for a simple adolescent, well, it is. Malick routinely sacrifices the personalities of his characters to the altar of his own spiritual and philosophical musings. For example, the multiple characters in The Thin Red Line -- with their numerous voiceovers and divergent storylines -- eventually all merged into Malick's over-arching dialogue/meditation with nature and God.
In the same vein, there really isn't too much of a plot in The Tree of Life. Instead, Malick seems more interested in creating an evolving sense of time, emotion, feeling and meditation. And he is mostly successful in this captivating and intermittently frustrating endeavor until the final reel, when his thematic reach simply becomes too ambitious, and the narrative begins to buckle under the ponderous weight of it all.
******* SPOILER ALERT *******
I can only assume that the ending is a metaphorical journey in which Jack embarks on a spiritual walkabout in a time and space which lies at the "end of time and space." This can be represented by Armageddon, Death or purely a symbolic personal journey.
As he walks along the surface of an empty, rocky terrain, he sees his younger self, who goads him to follow along. Then, he sees a woman draped in white, who we can only assume is an angel.
Then, an open doorway appears on the terrain: it seems to be the portal between life and death; the divine and the human; the spiritual and corporeal. He walks through.
Now, he is on a beach right where the water reaches the land.
This is a reunion of the spirits and Jack meets his mother, father and brothers. The reconciliation of the family and their subsequent hugs and tears evokes a sentiment of forgiveness, acceptance and unconditional love.
We then see shots of the mother, draped in white, surrounded by two, ethereal women (angels?). The mother clasps her palms together, raises her hands as if in a prayer, and says to God: "I give you my son."
There are multiple ways of interpreting this final piece of dialogue. Perhaps, like Job, she chose to bear her suffering and, instead of cursing God, accepted the death of her son as His will, thereby achieving Divine Grace and healing. Another interpretation could be that Malick is pounding us over the head with the "Christ is the Son of God, and the Savior of humanity" metaphor.
Another interpretation still could coincide with the film's final images, with the adult Jack walking out of his office skyscraper with a relieved smile on his face, choosing to re-engage with life. Perhaps, either in prayer or in sacrifice, the Mother is offering her son to both God and the world as a man finally whole and redeemed; one who finally walks that balance between nature and grace, anger and love, past and present, despair and hope; and the earthly and the spiritual.
Before ending on the shot of a heavenly orb of light, the camera lingers on a modern bridge hovering over shimmering water on a beautiful day.
It is an apt visual metaphor that marks The Tree of Life as the culmination of Malick's decades-long spiritual cinematic journey.
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With its invocations of the Book of Job and breathy incantations about the "way of nature and the way of grace", Terrence Malick's Palme d'Or-winning The Tree of Life begins more like a prayer than a movie. It demands hush and attention but it also craves reverence; it certainly requires calm, a work that needs to be watched, not just recollected, in tranquillity.
Its first image is a shimmering oval of light in which it is just possible to discern, for a moment, a hand, perhaps that of Jesus. It soon gives way to grass and leaves and wafting net curtains, a tumble of gorgeously tasteful images underscored by a whispered voiceover. This is trademark Malick, using all of cinema's possibilities to express the ineffable: sound, image, dialogue, music, design. One notes, happily, he has yet to use 3D.
A woman (Jessica Chastain) in a beautiful, modernist house full of American classic retro furniture receives a telegram and, on reading it, collapses, letting out a howl.
Brad Pitt (excellent throughout) is at a private airport, receiving the news on a telephone, inaudible above the jet propellers. We gather a child has died. "I just want to die and be with him," whispers the grieving mother. This quick section also contains scenes in which Fiona Shaw – her role is credited at the end as "Grandmother" – comforts the mother, able only to spout platitudes such as: "The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away, life goes on." She also mentions, to the mother's horror: "You've still got the other two."
The film fades to black and we rejoin the action in Sean Penn's modern, arid home, where he lights a votive tea light. He goes to work and appears to be some kind of architect, poring over plans in a huge glass and steel structure. This is perhaps the only present-day footage in all of Malick's work, the first time he has shot modernity. I don't think he likes it, if Penn's anguished face is any gauge.
We hear a snippet of a phone conversation he has with his father: "I think about him every day, Dad." Is this the anniversary of that child's death, then? We hear Penn's voice saying: "He died when he was 19", so we figure he is grieving for a lost brother, trying to make sense of that death and its meaning.
I've taken two viewings to make sense of this part of the film – when I first saw it at Cannes, I was floating merrily in the sensory experience but bewildered by the narrative. With Malick, the viewer has to surrender to the cinematic flow, to trust it, seek refuge in it. But basically, this film is: Sean Penn (we learn his character is Jack) in the present, contemplating the reverberations of his brother's death, maybe some 20 years ago to the day, and trying to work out why – on an existential, spiritual, religious level – it happened.
Researching the allegedly unknowable Malick recently, I learned – and I wouldn't want reality to be a spoiler – that his brother, Larry, committed suicide in Spain while studying guitar under the teacher Andrés Segovia in 1968.
In The Tree of Life, just before the mother receives the telegram, the camera floats past a teenager's bedroom in which a guitar stands, propped up by the bed. Later in the film, we will see fleeting shots of a young brother practising his guitar. This is hardly the cinema of a recluse, then, but a deeply personal work that reveals the author's soul. It will strike chords with anyone who has ever questioned life and death.
And then,22 minutes in, The Tree of Life becomes something extraordinary. The next 17 minutes are gobsmacking, requiring unbelievable daring and confidence from the film-maker, but also beseeching a giant leap of filmic faith from the viewer. Malick, in short, goes off on one.
Shots of planetary movements, hot geysers, lava, bacteria, molecules, jellyfish, canyons and churning seas give way to a CGI dinosaur caressing another injured beast – a scene of prehistoric kindness. Like the polar opposite of Michael Bay, these aren't special effects, these are ideas. But they are also risky, baffling, beautiful images. Are they Darwinian or creationist? They're certainly a little studenty and Discovery Channel-ish, a sort of lava lamp cinema. If you feel like laughing, maybe that's OK, too.
We return from this cosmic reverie, sharply, to the childhood bliss of postwar, smalltown America (clues indicate this is Waco, Texas, where Malick grew up, although the film was shot in Smithville) and this section will now form the meat of the film, as young Jack (Hunter McCracken) and his two brothers play in the wide streets, swing on the trees, waft around with their ethereally lovely mother by the river. When their father – "call me sir" – gets home, things get stricter and meal times are often spent cutting meatloaf under his glare. A local child drowns, felons are arrested, there are sermons on Sundays, Dad envies the rich houses and teaches the kids boxing, he growls at them to weed the lawn and close the door quietly – years float by, like the river.
Malick's camera drifts like an angel, or a ghost, rarely staying still, its images sweeping us along in an ebb and flow, washing us in the ways of nature and the ways of grace. Yet within its ambition to convey the meaning of life, The Tree of Life is also boring, cliched and banal. Dad loses a job and the family move house and things will never quite be the same. The film flashes back to adult Jack, now wandering a salt flat, or some kind of beach, surrounded by lost souls.
What are we to make of this coda? I find it shockingly cheesy and can't quite reconcile it with other sublime passages in the same film. The hippie, Taoist, animist Malick of old is still there but, suddenly, I felt preached at. The dinosaurs, I can take; the souls on the beach, the hugging and the rapprochement with God, that's too much. Maybe I just climb a different tree.