(Dir. Terrence Malick, United States, 2011)
How does one begin to discuss a film like Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life? There hasn’t been a film quite as important, majestic, or beautifully artistic in many, many years. The cinematic master’s work stands as a deeply profound experience of existential inquiry that feels like a culmination of his efforts throughout the years. The wanderings and ruminations of his four previous films seem to all have led to this. Much could be said regarding this richly layered work of art – its religious implications, its philosophizing, its musings on the origins of life, its familial politics, etc. – but, here I am merely concerned with basking in the sheer wonder of Malick’s creation.
In The Tree of Life, Malick chronicles two generations in the lives of the O’Brien family pausing primarily in the 1950s as Mr. and Mrs. (Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain) raise their three young boys. The film mostly follows the eldest son Jack (as a child played by Hunter McCracken) as he wrestles with the diverging ideals of his mother and father. The strength of this family is tested and their lives drastically altered when the middle son dies in the war at age nineteen. As an aging man, Jack (as an adult played by Sean Penn) reflects on his childhood marked by a damaged relationship with his father and continues to grapple with the premature death of his brother. Malick’s story is decidedly simple and familiar, but his execution in relaying this narrative through arresting visuals and a cornucopia of classical music compositions posits The Tree of Life as a thoroughly engaging piece of experiential literature.
In its construction alone, the gifted filmmaker should be applauded. He bookends his primary narrative with two rather unconventional pieces rife with symbolic imagery and sensationally disjointed editing. The first introduces our characters and sets the stage for things to come giving us brief glimpses of images that appear later. Mrs. O’Brien narrates this section, and holds that no ill will comes to those who love and espouse grace. “I will be true to whatever comes,” she asserts and affirms her place before God. Her faith is then tested when she receives the news about her son’s death. “Lord, why? Where were you? Who are we to you?” Her desperate questions echo those of our own at some point in our lives.
Before delving into the heart of his story, Malick leads us into an unexpected, yet wondrously conceived interlude that ambitiously documents the creation (or just inception depending on your beliefs) of the universe. The camera (with talented cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki at the helm) captures the grandiosity of the cosmos down to the delicate intricacies of molecular structures in this extended sequence that eschews narration magnificently set to Zbigniew Preisner’s haunting piece “Lacrimosa.” Evoking the grandeur of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, the scene boasts some of the most visually arresting imagery ever committed to film.
Returning to more conventional fare, Malick sets camp in the story of the evolution of the O’Brien family. And, as per usual, he allows breathtaking images to tell this story of first love, marriage, and children and relies very little on dialogue. The filmmaker captures the essence of the beauty of new life through minute details – a father gazing at the simple complexity of his newborn’s feet, the innate connection between mother and child, the shadows cast of boys at play. In one particularly well-executed sequence, Malick touchingly depicts the passing of time through early childhood set to Gustav Holst’s “Hymn to Dionysus” and Smetana’s “Vltava (Die Moldau).” (It goes without saying that Malick’s use of music is unparalleled in today’s film industry.)
The film’s montages come to rest when Jack is around eleven or twelve years old. Here, Malick’s primary theme emerges. Jack’s father and mother lay out before him two distinct paths: the way of nature and the way of grace. Mrs. O’Brien hints at the film’s beginning that all of us must choose which to follow. And so, Malick explores the tension between these two ways of life through the eyes of Jack faced with the paramount choice. Over the course of the film, his mother comes to teach him to always extend love and grace warning that the way of nature seeks only to please itself. The only way to live is to love. Conversely, Jack’s father presents the primal instincts of our nature chiding that the only way to get ahead in the world is through fierce will. “If you want to succeed, you can’t be too good,” Mr. O’Brien instructs his three sons.
It should be no surprise which way of life Malick deems most noble. He does, however, allow his characters to recognize their own folly and wisely does not punish them for it. Ignoring the exhortations of his angelic mother, Jack soon embraces the unforgiving brutality of his own nature. After being exposed to the cruelty of this life (witnessing the death of a peer, another friend marred by a house fire), the boy rebukes the creator declaring, “Why should I be good if you aren’t?” Uncharacteristically, Jack begins lashing out – destroying property with his friends, stealing from his neighbors, carelessly defying both his parents. The conflicted boy recognizes the tension inside of him: “I do what I hate, what I want to do I can’t do,” he ponders evoking the words of St. Paul from the book of Romans. Testing the limits of his transgressive patterns, Jack turns on his brother and in an act of betrayal shoots him in the finger with a pellet gun. Finally acknowledging the damage he has wrought, he does apologize to his brother who graciously forgives him.
While Jack’s father and mother certainly provide obvious metaphors for these two disparate paths, they are also fully realized characters, firmly grounded in the complexities of humanity. To diminish them to symbolic archetypes would be inappropriately reductive. Mrs. O’Brien, while often embodying purity itself, also must reckon with her own faith when her son passes. She is not immune to these most fundamental human doubts. Likewise, Mr. O’Brien, often aggressive and reproachful toward his children, too falls victim to unbridled emotion. He experiences guilt surrounding the harsh treatment of his sons, also mourns the death of his second oldest, and insecurely yearns for the approval and adoration of his children. He wants to be a good father, but he simply does not know how. Outstanding performances from Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain only help to breathe life into this troubled married couple. Happiness, despair, and anger are all wonderfully captured in the faces of these talented actors. Malick, it seems, has found a perfect muse in Chastain who gives the performance of the year while barely uttering more than a few lines. Hunter McCracken, Laramie Eppler, and Tye Sheridan should similarly be praised for their impressive takes on the three sons giving new hope to the art of child acting.
Malick’s film returns to the wanderings of its beginning for its final segment. The story of the O’Brien family ends when both father and son realize the limits of their chosen path. Jack has hurt his brother and closest friend. His father faces the reality of not achieving his definition of success through increased wealth and better circumstances. He ultimately loses his job, and the family must move from their home. Transitioning from shots of an empty house, we see an adult Jack aimlessly shuffle through an arid wilderness – a symbol of his real life quandaries. A montage of surrealist imagery follows echoing the events of Jack’s somewhat tumultuous life. It ends with a sequence on a gray beach. Jack, seemingly searching for something or someone, is quickly joined by other wanderers and eventually his family as he best remembers them. This, then, stands as the troubled man’s final reckoning: he embraces his mother, reconciles with his estranged father, and reunites with his deceased brother. He too witnesses his mother relinquishing control of her son to God. “I give him to you. I give you my son,” she declares as Jack stands at the door with her as she releases him. Breathtaking and moving, the scene instills a sense of glorious wonder, one unmatched by anything else in Malick’s untouchable oeuvre.
There are other unique touches throughout that expose Malick’s supreme gift at filmmaking (a shot of Mrs. O’Brien suspended in air by her enchanting innocence, a boy emerging from a house submerged in water to symbolize the miracle of giving birth, a predatory dinosaur that chooses the way of grace, Jack’s imposing voiceover that belies his dutiful prayers), but to expound on these would call for countless pages of admiration. If last year’s greatest cinematic feat was inextricably tied to its release date, this year’s The Tree of Life exists outside of context and remains utterly timeless. It has already become an essential piece of cinema, and my favorite film – one that brings this admittedly religious writer closer to God. Its creator, however, beautifully leaves it open for interpretation. Before its credits roll, Jack returns from the dreamlike world on the beach, and we are planted again in the real world of skyscrapers and concrete. Jack peers around as if to determine whether or not it was all a dream. He smiles for the first time presumably having experienced the way of grace. As The Tree of Life ends, Malick is careful not to firmly answer any questions. Instead, we are left with this gift – a beautiful and challenging film for the ages.