Branching out – The Tree of Life review

The Tree of Life – Starring Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain and Sean Penn. Directed by Terrence Malick. Rated M. Originally published June 22, 2011. By Simon Miraudo.

Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life is about the meaning of our existence, told from the perspective of God, as He recalls the entire history of the universe. Maybe. It’s definitely in that general thematic ballpark. There is often a canyon between ‘ambition’ and ‘intelligibility’, and Malick is certainly more concerned with the former rather than the latter. I don’t know if films get any more ambitious than this. But you don’t just get an ‘A’ for effort. Gaspar Noe’s similarly bold Enter the Void follows the spirit of a recently deceased man as he struggles to hold onto this Earthly plane and gets pulled into the next life. It’s visually spellbinding, but like many technically astounding movies, falls flat in areas such as the screenplay, and particularly in the performances. Enter the Void is a remarkable film, but ultimately fails to make this inevitable universal experience resonate emotionally. The Tree of Life, however, succeeds. It doesn’t just get an ‘A’ for effort; it gets an ‘A’ for being so deeply stirring and affecting. It tells the biggest story of all, yet still feels personal. Some may hate it, some may call it a mess and some may call it pretentious. I understand the first sentiment, embrace the second, and disagree wholeheartedly with the third. Malick may shy away from the limelight, and his films may seem impenetrable, but The Tree of Life is daringly earnest and honest. It’s why we go to the movies, and it’s why humans create art. Earlier in the year, I celebrated Zack Snyder’s campy misfire Sucker Punch, saying, “When a filmmaker is given a chance to unload their innermost desires onto the screen, the resulting product is often terrible, but also a priceless insight into the artist’s mind”. The Tree of Life is the exception to the rule; here is Malick’s heart on the screen, and it is beautiful.

The film defies synopsis, but I’ll try my best. It all begins with a flicker of light. We meet the O’Brien family in Waco, Texas, sometime between the late 1950s and early 1960s: there is the mother (Jessica Chastain), the father (Brad Pitt) and three young boys, Jack (Hunter McCracken) being the eldest. The mother explains to her sons the dual ways of living: ‘The Way of Nature’, which is self-serving and cruel, and ‘The Way of Grace’, which is forgiving and kind. Years later, she receives a telegram informing her of a tragedy. One of her sons has died; how, we never learn. The father chides himself for treating him too harshly. Skip forward a few decades, and sad-eyed Jack is all grown up (and played by Sean Penn); he works in a cold, sparse office building, sits in boardroom meetings, and rides elevators to the top of skyscrapers. All the while, he wrestles with the voices of his mother and father and late brother in his head – not to mention his own. This is just the first 15 minutes.

Then: creation! In the ultimate flashback, we witness the birth of the universe. The empty void is met by a big bang, and the cosmos begins to breathe. Volcanoes erupt, water flows, and the primordial goop comes into being; it marches onto Pangaea and evolves into dinosaurs, who also struggle to live by either ‘nature’ or ‘grace’. This sequence is breathtaking. Almost every image seems like an impossible creation. Effects wizard Douglas Trumbell, (2001: A Space Odyssey) has once again provided us with indelible visuals that will confound viewers. Malick’s films can be occasionally mocked for looking more like deliberately paced nature documentaries than motion pictures, but here we are presented with such startling imagery that I half imagine audiences will react as they did when they first saw the Lumière brothers’ Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat, terrified that the locomotion would literally drive through the screen and collide with them in their seats. “How can this possibly be fake?”

As we speed through the history of time, Malick (or, in the case of the film’s true narrator, God) returns to the marriage of Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien. They wed, and the missus gives birth to three joyful, happy baby boys. Their mother is endlessly loving and playful, as is their father (there is no evidence of his future cruelty). They’re at such peace, it’s almost as if they are acutely aware that they have been blessed with the grace of God. DP Emmanuel Lubezki’s camera doesn’t just follow the characters; it lives alongside them. The camera runs like it has legs and it moves the way no machine could. It truly feels as if an omnipotent being, hypnotized by the beauty of creation, has taken the opportunity to halt the evolution and eventual dissolution of the universe to spend some time with these kids; His presence always felt. As the boys get older, their father becomes more forceful, teaching them in ‘The Way of Nature’, to the point that Jack travels down a dark path from which he cannot escape. A strong hand around the neck is more powerful than a pair of eyes over a shoulder it seems, as two fathers – one of nature and one of grace – try to shape Jack in their own image.

Don’t let my description of the film scare you into thinking that this is some sort of religious propaganda. I’ve spoken with some who consider it an atheist manifesto. After all, we never see the hand of God; not in the creation of the universe, not in the raising of the boys, and not in the universe’s ultimate undoing (or whatever it is that happens in the film’s final reel). Or do we? I doubt we’ll get an answer from Malick anytime soon. But I suppose that doubt is the point. Ultimately, this film is about our individual struggle to live well; to do and to be good. If God – or however you want to refer to an all-seeing companion – was there to tell us what to do and when, what would we really learn? The knowledge of His existence would make our decisions irrelevant. Jack is the one who must decide which father he wants to be like. Or perhaps he has to realise that there isn’t another father out there in the heavens; just the hateful one with which he is stuck with. Jack needs to learn to be a good man, even if there is no reward in the afterlife. The Tree of Life may not make you believe in God, but it does tell our story from His perspective. Whether you consider Him a real or fictional character is up to you, but it never hurts to consider how we live from someone else’s eyes.

Pitt, Chastain, Penn and McCracken don’t so much give performances as they offer ‘presences’. They’re part of the movie’s makeup; they need only feel natural to aide Malick’s story. And they do. Everything here feels organic, and never forced. It reminded me of Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York, which was the last great film about ‘life’ and what it means to live it. I say it’s better than The Tree of Life, but it’s also much darker. The Tree of Life is such a hopeful and inspiring picture. There were dialogue-free sequences that nearly moved me to tears. There is imagery so powerful that, like nature and the planet itself, is so indescribably gorgeous that it’s hard to imagine it was created without divine intervention. The elliptical editing (completed by five separate souls) is so effective and breezy it felt as if the film was over before it had even begun. And so, I guess, is life itself.


Check out Simon’s other reviews here.

The Tree of Life arrives on DVD and Blu-ray December 7, 2011.

2 Responses to “Branching out – The Tree of Life review”

  1. Man, what a review. I have to go see this film…NOW! I have to say, I was ac/dc about seeing this film, but I think I just got converted.

    • Thanks so much – glad you enjoyed it! Please do come back to us with your thoughts on the film once you’ve seen it 🙂

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