Terrence Malick’s long in development magnum opus (his 5th feature-length film in the span of 38 years), THE TREE OF LIFE, is a semi-autobiographical examination of personal life as well as the big scheme of life in general through a non-linear and not necessarily logical journey that will either pull you along or it won’t. Normally, I automatically tune out any movie that is pretentious enough to deal with an amorphous subject matter such as the meaning of life. However, even though I have seen all of Malick’s films, I can only now admit that other than Stanley Kubrick, Terrence Malick may be the only other filmmaker who has the intelligence and talent to make a movie about what life is about. THE TREE OF LIFE is a heart achingly beautiful movie to watch and experience. It is by no means perfect, but where the movie works, which is about 90% of it, it soars. THE TREE OF LIFE is an important film because rarely do we get to see filmmakers receive big studio support and complete artistic freedom to make movies of this type. Sadly, films have become more of a commodity aimed solely at generating profits than works of art so to see a film like THE TREE OF LIFE is a nice reprieve from the typical crap that studios put out.

THE TREE OF LIFE starts off with a Biblical verse from the Book of Job that sets the tone of the film. The verse reads: “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?” THE TREE OF LIFE is clearly Terrence Malick’s most personal film. Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, and the Bay Area’s very own Jessica Chastain star in the film. THE TREE OF LIFE is mostly set in Waco, Texas in the 1950’s. The story follows a family’s progress as we see the Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien’s (Pitt and Chastain) three boys grow up to become adolescents. At 19 years of age, one of the boys commits suicide. This occurs sometime in the early 1970’s and we learn about this event at the beginning of the film. The film forwards to present day and the eldest son (Penn) sets off on a journey to regain purpose and perspective in his life and to understand the true nature of the world.

The film’s narrative is simple. However, Malick’s fragmentary, impressionistic approach is not always linear. It doesn’t play as a series of scenes, but as a mosaic of vivid moments, associations, and emotions. Voices on the soundtrack seem to be interior monologues from the characters, but its not always clear who is speaking or when. As I’ve stated, THE TREE OF LIFE is an extraordinarily personal film from a famous recluse: the little that is known about Malick is that he grew up in Waco, Texas in the 1950’s, he was the son of a very strict and devout father, and he had two siblings who died tragically (one in an accident, the other by suicide). Further, according to some account, Malick is himself a very strict father, who, for instance, refuses to have a television in the house. He may also be (and the film supports this supposition) a born-again Christian.

At the beginning of the film, Mrs. O’Brien explains that people must choose to follow one of two paths in life: the path of Grace or the path of Nature. In a voiceover, she elaborates, “Grace doesn’t try to please itself. Accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked. Accepts insults and injuries…Nature only wants to please itself. Get others to please it too. Likes to lord it over them. To have its own way. It finds reasons to be unhappy when all the world is shining around it. And love is smiling through all things.” This struggle between Grace and Nature is what THE TREE OF LIFE is essentially about. Mrs. O’Brien is clearly associated with the way of Grace, and Mr. O’Brien with the way of Nature. Mr. O’Brien is a strict disciplinarian whose rules are based on seemingly arbitrary rules and a belief that is based on an eye-for-an-eye. On the other hand, Mrs. O’Brien emphasizes love and forgiveness and it is she that her sons seem to prefer. They prefer the way of Grace.

However, it would be much too simplistic to paint Mr. O’Brien as being bad and Mrs. O’Brien as good. Mr. O’Brien obviously loves his boys just as much as Mrs. O’Brien does. His strict discipline is motivated by his love for his children – he views the world as being harsh and cruel and he attempts to prepare his children to succeed in that world. The film doesn’t treat Mr. O’Brien’s discipline as being bad because when Mr. O’Brien goes away on a business trip, the children are unruly and do not listen to their mother.

As for Mrs. O’Brien, she believes that following the path of Grace will result in a life free of harm. However, although Mrs. O’Brien strictly adheres to this path, her life does not go perfectly as one of her sons commits suicide when he’s 19. When the priest attempts to comfort her and tells her that God will now watch over her son, she replies, “He was in God’s hands the whole time.” Mrs. O’Brien’s statement is an accusation against God for taking her son and an indication that she herself does not consistently follow her belief. Of course, this is merely my own take on THE TREE OF LIFE. Considering that Terrence Malick does not give interviews, none of us will probably know what Malick’s philosophical underpinnings for his film are. This is admirable from an artistic perspective but probably frustrating for those who’d like to know what the hell he means by all of this.

THE TREE OF LIFE is probably too unconventional to reach audiences in America’s Christian heartland, but it would be interesting to see what they would make of it. Alongside the Biblical overtones, THE TREE OF LIFE also advances a Darwinist history of creation, which could give churchgoers a serious headache. Although the film is deeply spiritual, Malick is not one to preach. Instead, he gives you the sense that he’s genuinely asking questions to which the answers may be unknowable.

Stylistically, THE TREE OF LIFE is a culmination of everything Terrence Malick has done until now. All of his thematic and aesthetic signatures are here from earlier films like BADLANDS and THE THIN RED LINE: The dreamlike yet precise details, an obsession with both the metaphysical and the emotional, an ability to create suspense within a languid mood. Malick’s unusual approach is deeply immersive and keenly felt. The film makes the past intensely present. At its best, the film is a vivid, very moving remembrance of childhood.

With the exception of Sean Penn and Jessica Chastain, THE TREE OF LIFE contains wonderful performances from the remaining cast. As a grown man, Jack is played by Sean Penn, who spends his few screen minutes wordlessly pondering and apparently trying to find answers about his harsh upbringing and about his brother’s suicide. Penn is one of the chief weaknesses of the film as Malick has Penn simply walk around moping in Armani suits and playing a very underwritten role.

Brad Pitt (in a role originally intended for Heath Ledger) reminds us what a gifted actor he is in roles that call less for classically trained disquisitions than vibrant, telegraphed emotions. Jessica Chastain spends the entire film looking celestially ethereal and giving whispery voice-overs.

Young Jack is played by newcomer, Hunter McCracken and most of the film is told through his eyes as he experiences the world around him. He is a powerful young screen presence with a fascinating face. He owns the general narrative of the film and we feel his pain. For someone so young, McCracken has an amazing amount of restraint and he is able to convey so much with so little. I was surprised by how confident and commanding he was throughout this film. He is perfectly in tune with the complex and abstract nature of what the film is trying to be and he proves himself to be a true star.

But as usual, the greatest performer in any Malick film is the camera. Emmanuel Lubezki, who also shot THE NEW WORLD, ALI, and CHILDREN OF MEN, recollaborates with Malick in order to capture one of the finest looking films in a long time. The camera is simultaneously able to romanticize and distance itself from the camera, balancing both the emotional and intellectual approach to the filmmaking. Add to this Jack Fisk’s production design and Alexandre Desplat’s score and you have a witch’s brew that is intentionally impressionistic and gracefully refined.

As for my doubts, there is that long early sequence devoted to the creation of the world. This CGI spectacle, akin to the apes sequence in 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, is visually striking and puts a universal, metaphysical question mark around the small family drama that follows. But I’m not convinced it really belongs or enhances the film – rather it stops it in its tracks. What are we to make of the CGI dinosaur that attacks, then spares, a wounded foe? The moment might signal the birth of Grace, but is this the same filmmaker who shoots everything in natural light? And while we’re at it, let’s also please ditch the entire ending: a heavily allegorical sequence that seems to me quite the worst thing Malick has done and not so much for its overtly religious symbolism as for its emotional emptiness.

Like 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY and LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, THE TREE OF LIFE is less like a film than a monument. Like I said before, it is not perfect. Its depiction of the afterlife at the end is a bit half-baked and Sean Penn’s performance is heavily melodramatic and meandering. But within the wider context of the film, these imperfections don’t matter. THE TREE OF LIFE is cosmically mind-blowing and emotionally wrenching. Malick attempts to link the creation of the universe, the creation of the earth, the creation of a 1950’s Texan family, the awareness of individual responsibility, and the fallacy of adults to the nature of life and the presence of God. The cinematography, soundtrack, and perfect set design give the film its authenticity and a distinct character. Brad Pitt proves himself to be no lightweight actor and he delivers a towering performance. Most notably, the children are so natural that I honestly wondered if they were even aware of being filmed. THE TREE OF LIFE is not an easily digestible film, but if you’re patient and you give it a chance, your attention will be rewarded.

SIDE NOTE: I am also proud to state that Terrence Malick is an American of Assyrian descent. Unfortunately, most Assyrians are unaware of this fact and they have instead focused their adulations on people such as Andre Agassi (who denies he is Assyrian) and Rosie Malek-Yonan, a woman whose accomplishments I find to be unimpressive and someone I regard as utterly despicable. Its sad to see that my own people are too ignorant to recognize a filmmaker who is widely regarded as one of the most important directors of our time.

Advertisements