“The Tree of Life” is the first film in my reviewing career where when people asked me the simplest of questions about it; like ‘What’s it about?’ or ‘Is it any good?’, I have actually found myself stammering for words each and every time. When a film is not meant to present a linear narrative but instead delve into thematic exploration, how do you summarize that?
It’s directed by Terrence Malick, a man who in his 40 years of directing experience arrives here only at his fifth feature film. He’s a director notorious for his perfectionism and visual beauty; in fact, the footage for “Tree” was shot well over three years ago, but has been in the editing room ever since. This reflects not that the film is a poor one, simply that Malick finds his message and rhythm when piecing the footage together, as opposed to from the script.
Malick carries a famously slow, contemplative pace. It’s not just this that often infuriates the majority of moviegoers, but the fact that Malick has never once just given a straight-up, plain-and-simple story. He uses film in different ways and for different ends — to communicate some kind of sentiment about life, war, nature, et cetera. It varies from film to film, and here in “Tree of Life”, Malick turns his attention to two very differing concepts.
One is the American Dream of the ’50s; an idyllic, subdued family life. Brad Pitt is the stern head of the O’Brien family, ruling over his wife and three kids with a loving if overtly disciplinary eye. So intent is Mr. O’Brien on “making a man” out of his three boys, in fact, that it causes really heavy psychological issues for his eldest son, Jack, forty years down the line. Sean Penn plays Jack in the modern-day, who wanders aimlessly through desolate terrain, questioning himself, the events that made him who he is, and the universe at large.
This is balanced and intercut with, of all things, the creation of the universe, and the gradual expansion of life. In a 25-minute sequence, the centerpiece of the film in all regards, (emotional, thematic, and most especially technical!) the pieces that form our planet converge, the organisms that become life begin to come alive, and it culminates with, of all things, a scene in which dinosaurs spring into existence. This sequence as a whole is composed almost like a symphony; complete with its own rhythm, sense of motion, tone. It’s some of the most assured, awe-inspiring filmmaking I think that I’ve ever seen.
Performances are of the subdued type. Sean Penn’s role as the adult Jack is unexpectedly minor. Mind you, he rivets whenever he’s on-screen; so convincing is the heartbreak contorted on his face. Jessica Chastain as his mother 40 years prior carries a level of wisdom and grace unseen for actresses her age.
But I don’t believe anyone will contest the claim that Brad Pitt’s work in the film is the greatest performance. He’s come a long way since playing a goofy stoner in 1993’s “True Romance”, and no clearer is this than seeing him effortlessly adapting to the role of a 1950’s alpha-male-type. He manages the look of the era impeccably. Has Brad Pitt ever really had a problem in the looks department? Yet as the film progresses and his character’s failures come more into light, he becomes quite a tragic figure. As far as his body of work goes, it’s on-par with his “Benjamin Button” character.
But what exactly is “The Tree of Life” trying to convey, what’s the purpose Malick’s trying to send? “Tree of Life” is a total Rorschach test in the sense that no two people will look at it and get the same thing out of it. Personally, I think Malick cutting between two vastly different portions of the film is him trying to give a good deal of perspective to the importance that humanity holds to itself. Kind of like him telling us to take a step back and try and assess how large our problems really are when juxtaposed against the massive scale of the universe. Malick believes that we, as a planet, can only be really in touch with ourselves once we’re in touch with nature. If not, he suggests we may live an aimless existence; providing Brad Pitt and Sean Penn’s characters as examples of people who lose their way because of their lack of perspective and lack of action.
These words of mine may make the film seem daunting. Believe me. It is. But for all of the intellectual heavy-lifting that might be required to appreciate the film, it’s a pure sensory overload. The images in this film will made me audibly gasp in sheer amazement. The music will stir you, but the silence will haunt you. Malick, if nothing else, has crafted a stunning series of images; gorgeous to rival the likes of professionally-filmed nature documentaries.
But that’s what’s all the more remarkable about “Tree of Life”. All his long, sporadically productive career, Malick’s married the stimulation of the senses with that of the mind. And in his true masterpieces, ’78’s “Days of Heaven” and ’98’s “The Thin Red Line”, even the heart. That’s exactly what he’s accomplished with “The Tree of Life”, a film so massive in its scope and broad in its execution. Time no doubt will regard this as Malick’s finest technical accomplishment, but speaking for myself, it just may be his most emotionally devastating, accessible, and ultimately rewarding work. The dinosaur doesn’t hurt, either. A