Just When You Thought We Stopped Exploring the Universe

The Tree of Life (May 27, 2011)     5/5

Written & Directed by Terrence Malick (Fox Searchlight Pictures)

Few directors attempt the vast ambition of crafting a masterpiece.  Even fewer succeed.  Terrence Malick has made five.  And including his latest, the infinitesimal The Tree of Life, that is the same number of films he has visualized throughout his career, beginning with the violence-pondering poetry of Badlands in 1973.  The Tree of Life is not for all tastes, as exemplified by the contrast of boos and reception of the top-prize Palm D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year.  However, there is no denying that it is a pinnacle in cinema, a modern-day 2001: A Space Odyssey combined with true understanding of human emotion that is not forced upon the audience, but instead left upon the screen for them to ruminate.

It is not often that a film penetrates the soul, as well as does its best to sum up the entirety of human existence.  The Tree of Life does both, and accomplishes such through its experimental, kaleidoscopic story of humanity’s origins, combined with its portrayal of that result through a family in 1950s Texas.  It is innovative, fascinating, touching, and beautiful.  Cinephile nirvana.   As the film begins, a Biblical quote appears in silence.  God gives a response to Job, a good-hearted man who feels betrayed by the Lord, who has asked where God was when misfortune befell him.  God replies, “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation…while the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?”

We soon cut to the home of Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien (Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain, respectively), who have just learned that their middle son has died at 19.  Mrs. O’Brien asks God why.  And asking a similar question is their oldest son, Jack (Sean Penn), who as we cut to modern day, is now an architect.  As he looks outside and sees a tree being planted in front of his office building, he begins to remember of a segment of his childhood, as well as the young death of his younger brother, which he thinks about every day.  And as he continues to ask the heavens those ever-present questions, “why?” and “where were you?,” God responds the same way he did to Job.  And that of course is “why?” and “where were YOU?”  To exemplify this point, we are shown the origins of humanity, complete with the Big Bang and a supercool dinosaur sequence (this is where confused moviegoers begin to walk out).  The special effects are spectacular, and are reminiscent of the “Stargate sequence” in 2001 for a reason.  Douglas Trumbell, who was the special effects supervisor on that film in 1968, basically came out of retirement to work on The Tree of Life, using little CGI to great effect.

After the “creation sequence,” we are taken to that segment in Jack’s childhood, from birth to pre-teenage years.  We learn through Malick-iconic voiceover that Jack’s mother lives by the way of grace, meaning she loves everything around her and does not question the mysteries of life (that is, until her middle son dies), and his father lives by the way of nature, meaning he struggles against life to be successful and maintain stance as the governing force in his family.  Jack’s brother is soon born, and it is in their relationship that the film makes its biggest statement (the youngest son is hardly a focus, considering the brothers basically exclude him from their inner circle).  Jack, who is soon invited into a band of little rascals, finds himself becoming more like the father, while his brother, a young painter and musician, begins to form into the likeness of his mother, therefore foreshadowing a death that seems as unfair as they come (and judging by the time period, a conflict hardly anyone wanted).

Brad Pitt gives one of his best performances here, as a character that is both subtle and explicit.  The father loves his children, but knows how to express it only through hurtful, authoritative parenting.  He once wanted to be a pianist, but has since struggled against his life’s flow by a drive for wealth, therefore placing him as an inventor.  And when his circus tent comes crashing down, there is no feeling but depressive failure, that which both ends this period in the family’s life and proves his method of living as a senseless exercise.  Meanwhile, the best scene in The Tree of Life arrives at the family dinner table.  Mr. O’Brien, who feels as though he must justify his decision to abandon musicianship through loving his sons as much as he can, does so by attempting to brutally drive them toward understanding the sorry facts of life, rather than teaching them to simply accept it, as the mother does.  Anyway, as Mr. O’Brien unfairly badgers Jack about how he spent his day, Jack’s younger brother responds quietly, hesitantly, with a “be quiet.”  Soon, Mr. O’Brien has reached over the table to grab his son, molding a conflict that is emotionally devastating, yet anything but forced.

Much of the film uses previously recorded classical music (along with a new score by Alexandre Desplat) to emphasize its poetry, but this scene is executed in complete silence.  The result is as awe-inspiring as the cosmos.  Meanwhile, the child actors (the two brothers are played by Hunter McCracken and Tye Sheridan), are terrifically convincing.  The character of Jack is witnessed with perfect execution, as a young child who learns to question faith, hate his father, and eventually become like him – all while feeling regret for the lack of trust he instilled in his brother and betrayal for his untimely death.  Thus said, a coming-of-age tale is rarely told with such depth.  This all results in a climax as moving and exhilarating as anything I’ve seen in recent years.  It is at this point that we realize faith has literally been restored before our eyes.  Any film that could convey such a large idea is worth a look.  Any film that explores it with such detail is worth an Oscar.

These details are examined through breathtaking shots of nature, outer space, and human life, all of which maintaining a sense of beauty and artistic essence which is prevalent in any great painting.  Also in the mix is a vast array of symbolism, piecing together a puzzle of almost unprecedented mystery.  Speaking of symbols, this is obviously a very religious film, one of the most blatant in several years.  But it expresses faith in not necessarily a Christian sense, but as an omnipotent force that drives humanity, and connects us with a spiritual presence that may or may not be God.  This theme is complimented by the fact that Terrence Malick, after nearly 40 years of making movies (statistically speaking, about 7.6 years a film), has been searching for nothing other than the meaning of life.  Cinema is the only realm in which he can convey what he knows, continue to learn, and share it others. 

The Tree of Life may be his finest film, and one can’t help but think its personal touch is one key reason.  Malick also grew up in 1950s Texas, and it is easy to believe some aspects are autobiographical.  But most importantly, it is the “big idea” of the film that makes it so significant. The meaning of life, according to Terrence Malick, is to not question it, but instead revel in its beauty and wonder with the greatest gift given to humanity – love.  All of Malick’s films are reflections of both nature and humanity, and this is no doubt the message he has been attempting to share throughout all his years as a filmmaker.  He doesn’t make films for any specific audience; he makes them for himself.  That much has been clear through his others, including love-triangle Days of Heaven, war/nature reflection The Thin Red Line, and John Smith history fable The New World.  These are all great films, and they have been made by one of the greatest working artists today.  The Tree of Life is no exception, and like the burden Jack carries, the one that we all carry, it will remain until the end of time.


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