DVD 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.
The Tree of Life continues director and philosophy scholar Terrence Malick’s drive to understand both our primal impulses and our desperate searches for grace and forgiveness. His films (Badlands, Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line, The New World) wrestle with humans’ contradictory selves and sometimes spiritual connection to nature and each other while seeking a deeper understanding of what it means to exist.
In his latest work, Malick both narrows to a more personal, autobiographical focus and expands to a much grander scale. The Tree of Life is devoted to capturing, in the reclusive auteur’s typically rich tone-poem visuals and stream-of-consciousness editing and voice overs, his childhood memories and impressions of growing up in Texas in the ‘50s.
But there are also 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.
Both of Malick’s own younger brothers died young—one in a car crash, the other by his own hand—and The Tree of Life 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 could earn him an Oscar nomination), but then the film jumps ahead to older son Jack in the present day (a weary Sean Penn) before drifting back through his childhood memories for the majority of its running time.
In Malick’s interpretation of his own past, 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.
Despite the lack of a conventional narrative (or even much in the way of exchanged dialogue), this is not a meandering, experimental work, but one that knows exactly where it’s going and what it’s saying. 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 is painted 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 are idyllic, acted out with clear-eyed awareness by Hunter McCracken as young Jack and Laramie Eppler as his achingly trusting younger brother. We see 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.
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.
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. However, it 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 very act of watching it becomes a reminder of the incredible power of cinema.
The Tree of Life is available on DVD and Blu-ray from Redbox.