Theatrical Review: Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, starring Brad Pitt, is what filmmaking should be: big, daring, packed with imagery and meaning, and delivered with mesmerizing craft and artistry. It’s also one of the best films of the past several years, maybe decades.
Director and philosophy scholar Terrence Malick’s films—Badlands, Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line and The New World—wrestle with humans’ contradictory selves and sometimes spiritual connection to nature and each other.
The reclusive filmmaker’s work is driven by a need to understand both our primal impulses—to kill and go to war and conquer—and our desperate search for grace and forgiveness. And through all that, Malick seeks a deeper understanding of what it means to exist.
The Tree of Life continues his cinematic debate on these matters, while both narrowing to a more personal, autobiographical focus and expanding to a much grander scale.
Much of The Tree of Life is devoted to capturing, in Malick’s typically rich tone-poem visuals and stream-of-consciousness editing and voice overs, the writer-director’s childhood memories and impressions of growing up in Texas in the ‘50s.
Then there are sections that pull back to the birth of the Universe, the formation of the Earth, and the rise of life on this planet, plus an epilogue visualizing a Heaven-like metaphysical level of collective humanity. Where once he was content to study the wind in the leaves, Malick’s widened his scope to cover the ultimate “nature”: human consciousness riding cosmic waves in the bright void and finding its deepest roots in the primordial ooze.
In the film’s more conventional narrative, we meet a 1950s Texas family: The father (Brad Pitt) is a stern aerodynamics engineer who once dreamed of being a pianist; the mother (Jessica Chastain) is (at least as remembered by her child) a loving, almost-ethereal spirit devoted to raising their three sons.
The father represents Nature: seeking to please himself, finding reason to be unhappy, unsatisfied, yearning for more, envious of others. Pitt bears down on the role, his face thick, almost ape-like, projecting dominance to compensate for bitter inadequacies. (“Good” gets taken advantage of, he tells his son.)
The mother is Grace: not just gentle and laughing, full of play and joy, but forgiving, accepting any insult and injury while embracing good and seeking love. (“Unless you love, your life will flash by.”) Chastain almost floats above the role (literally in some moments of magic realism) and shines with willowy strength, her alabaster face both drawn and beatific.
Both of Malick’s own younger brothers died young—one in a car crash, the other by his own hand—and his film opens with news that the family’s middle son has committed suicide. We see the parents grieving (the single shot of Pitt’s stunned, impassive face on receiving the news should earn him an Oscar nomination), but the majority of the film jumps ahead to older son Jack in the present day (a weary Sean Penn) and then drifts back through his childhood memories.
Malick works at this with a deeply subjective and impressionistic pointillism, including constant jump cuts that make the fleeting moments of childhood (including haunting images and fears) feel simultaneously and accurately real and unreal—the camera is Malick, and this is film as memory, memory as film.
Some of those memories—as acted out with clear-eyed awareness by Hunter McCracken as young Jack and Laramie Eppler as his achingly trusting younger brother—are idyllic, of boys and dogs playing in green fields, kids kicking the can down a street at dusk.
Many of them, however, revolve around the the fears and frustrations of trying to please his disciplinarian father. Jack also reflects on how he felt pulled between Nature and Grace, and turned to typical boyish rebellion and cruelty in the face of a seemingly uncaring, unknowable and unanswering God.
The Tree of Life opens with a quote from The Book of Job and Malick asks not just Job’s “Why do the righteous suffer?” but also “Why do I do bad things?” The filmmaker suggests it’s the very desire to commune with and question our Creator (be He Biblical, natural, or metaphorical) that defines us, not the inevitable absence of clear answers.
Which brings us to the visions of the cosmos born in fire to the sound of celestial choirs; of prehistoric cell division and dinosaurs hunting; and of humanity on the Great Beach of Oneness and Forgiveness. Those scenes only add up 25 minutes of The Tree of Life’s 130-minute running time, but they’re the ones that may leave some viewers scratching their heads, or dismissively laughing.
They serve a greater purpose, however, tying Jack and Malick’s highly subjective memories to the greater collective experience. We are all one, those scenes say—we share the same cosmic past, we all started out as part of the same universe sprawling over time and space, and that makes us each incomprehensibly vast and yet so infinitesimally small.
Had Malick left those 25 minutes out, the remaining childhood story would probably find easier mainstream acceptance from audiences. But the audacity (and indulgence) of their inclusion charges the film with pure and daring artistry. (Rather than silly, the scene of a predatory dinosaur showing a moment of grace to its prey is one of the most powerful on film in years.) With these scenes in, The Tree of Life goes from being a great film to a masterpiece.
This is not a meandering, experimental work, but one that knows exactly where it’s going and what it’s saying. (The personal connections to Malick’s own life give him a firmer hand on the overall film and its ideas than he seemed to have in Thin Red Line and The New World.)
Malick’s loves his painstaking shots of ”magic hour” sunsets and clothes drying in sunlight, of the Great Sea of Life, and most of all, of hands touching grass in the wind. But the pay off of his obsession with sound and vision is a stunning, impressive cinematic experience. The Tree of Life requires a different kind of viewing—you have to open up to it, almost enter a fugue state, and let it take you to its own place. And when that happens, the act of watching it becomes a reminder of the incredible power of cinema.