Terrence Malick’s THE TREE OF LIFE filled me with joy. It’s an affirmation of life and a reminder that film is still an artform. When so many films today seem to be done by people who do not even understand the basics of the filmic language, here is a film that reminds us how elegant and transformative it can be when spoken so fluently. Malick communicates so much in a single image where some films would only dare to convey something so deep in their entirety. Malick isn’t shy to take on the big issues and here he takes on the biggest issue of all – life. And I’m talking about life on a cosmic level.
Malick begins his film about life with the revelation of a death. Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt, 12 MONKEYS) and Mrs. O’Brien (Jessica Chastain, THE DEBT) receive word that their son has died. They struggle with the news and go through the stages of grief as everyone does. Malick intercuts this with how the death has affected their oldest son Jack (Sean Penn, DEAD MAN WALKING), who is now a successful businessman, but is lost in his life.
In this opening meditation on grief, Malick keeps the audience questioning the who, what, where and when of events. It’s an unsettling feeling that he creates. The characters are all contemplating the meaning of their lives. Jack is featured in a metaphorical dreamscape wondering through the desert searching for purpose. Malick is laying the groundwork on how the death makes his characters feel. In context with what comes next, he is giving the context for life. Life is valuable because it ends and we never know when that will happen.
Then Malick takes the viewer back to the beginning of life on Earth. In an extended sequence of gorgeous visual effects, he starts with the Big Bang, travels from single cell organisms to the dawn of dinosaurs. It’s like watching a prehistoric version of the experimental documentary KOYAANISQATSI. Life and death touch this sequence hand in hand. It’s a profound statement on how one human death in the grander scheme of the universe is a rather mundane event. How many lives human or otherwise have lived and died in the history of the universe to be forgotten by time? Immortality in the physical plane certainly does not exist.
Next Malick brings us back to the O’Briens. It’s now the 1950s. Jack, played by Hunter McCracken, is born. As an infant he takes in the world around him, trying to make sense of it. Later comes brother R.L. (Laramie Eppler). He shows conflicted emotions to this little person taking away the attention of his parents. But as they grow, they become the best of friends along with their younger brother Steve (Tye Sheridan). Malick spends a great deal of time watching them at play, experiencing the simple joy of life.
But as Jack gets older, he is pushed and pulled between the opposite natures of his father and mother. His father is of nature, a man of the world who tells his sons that they can’t be too good or they will never get ahead in life. He is not a completely uncaring father, but he is a taskmaster who takes his own resentments toward being an unimportant man out on his family. He is never content. Jack’s mother is led by grace. She rises above Earthy desires and focuses on the happiness of her family and the things she does have. As Jack reaches puberty, the more he becomes like his father as he lashes out at a world he finds unfair. He watches in wonderment and a bit of jealousy as R.L. develops more like his kind mother.
Malick casts unknowns as the children in order to capture the true innocence of youth. The three O’Brien brothers feel like real brothers because Malick allows them to act like kids and just happens to be filming it. They aren’t burdened by dialogue, which is sparse throughout. For his trained actors, he received equally natural performances. Pitt brings the correct complexity to Mr. O’Brien. He is an imposing figure in his children’s lives, but we know he loves them. This duality makes his harsh behavior all the more off putting and real. Chastain has few lines, but embodies grace. She speaks volumes with her eyes and body. Watch how her character uses profound nonverbal communication with her children. A simple touch of the hand says she loves them, wants to console them and sometimes most importantly understands them. Penn’s appearance is more like a cameo, but his natural screen presence adds the right weight to the elder Jack’s search for meaning.
There is a spiritual element that runs under the film. The name of God is invoked, but this isn’t some specific religious statement. I can’t say it better than Roger Ebert when he wrote that it is a prayer. If there is a higher power out there, Malick is lifting this film out there as a thank you for life. In bringing attention to the insignificance of one life on the grandest of scale, Malick only highlights the importance of the simple daily joys of life. Loving is the only thing worth striving for.
Malick brings forth his ideas both grand and small through a collision of gorgeously composed images. If you’ve ever seen a Malick film before, you know what I mean. Working again with his NEW WORLD cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, they create photography that could be slipped into any art photography book. As I said earlier, the images convey an incredible amount of information.
One that particularly struck me was one when Jack is a small boy. His concerned father scoops him up and hands him off to his mother who shields him from something obscured in the background. Is a man having a seizure on the ground? It’s never explained. How many memories do we have from childhood that stick with us that we never know the context of what really happened because we couldn’t fully understand them at the time? Malick conveys this complex truth in a single shot. It works only because of its composition, timing, and direction synching together perfectly. This is film at its basic brilliance. Images conveying a story and larger meaning in context with the entire progression of imagery. So many films today only have images of people telling us the story and meaning. If it weren’t for watching the pretty people or pointless action, they could work as radio dramas.
This film is not conventional. The first half is experimental in the way it bucks conventional storytelling structure and conventions. It will confound many. Its recent Palme d’Or win at Cannes surprised many, because it left viewers scratching their heads. But what I think the Cannes’ jury saw was what I say – a work of art meant to be viewed many, many times to truly grasp everything it has to say. The only mainstream film to compare it to in scale, artistry and ambition would be 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. No other major studio (not even their art house brand) will release a more artistic film this year. It’s very conceivable they won’t release a better one either.