Audiences who engage with Terrence Malick’s THE TREE OF LIFE may find that it will be impossible to watch without bringing their own personal history, their emotional baggage, their own family experiences with them to the film. The film’s considerable power comes from Malick’s ability to go to a universal place and yet still make the film seem very personal and relevant to each individual who sees it. It is possible to view the film empirically. Just from the one viewing that I had, I feel it is a masterwork, but it resonates with me with such force that I find myself unable to think about the film without it being filtered by my own life experiences. I do not think I will be the only one who feels that way about this film.
THE TREE OF LIFE is absolutely not for everyone. It’s quiet, contemplative, and it rewards patience and understanding. Many moviegoers will flat out hate it – they will hate Malick’s refusal to tell his story with a conventional narrative; they will hate Malick’s flights-of-fancy that will come off to some as incredibly indulgent; they will hate the fact that Malick devotes most of the film to a portrait of a family in small-town 1950s Texas and think that it is not a subject deserving of so much time and attention. The criticisms put against this film – it’s indulgent, pretentious, too long – could be valid for a moviegoer unused to working with a film the way Malick requires. The film is as full and as long as Malick needs it to be; critics of the length remind me of AMADEUS’s Mozart asking which notes he should take out of his opera. He has a journey in mind, and he will not skip any step, because as so many have said before, the point isn’t about where you arrive but how you got there. But Malick tells this story the only way he can, and how audiences respond to it is very much what the movie is about, as opposed to any kind of linear narrative path.
We begin with a Bible verse of Job 38: 4, 7 – “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” But the film doesn’t approach religion from a strictly Christian perspective (although its influence on Malick is clear). The film’s theme is specified in the opening dialogue from Mrs. O’Brien – "There are two ways through life. The way of nature and the way of grace. You have to choose which one you will follow." Nature, we are told, is selfish and full of itself. Grace is love, and the giving of oneself to a higher calling or power. From there we are taken on a journey through the very foundations of the universe, and into the inner workings of the human heart. Malick’s film suggests that the difference is miniscule.
Each scene in THE TREE OF LIFE doesn’t play out in a traditional narrative sense – we are either in someone’s inner imaginings, or we are dropped into a remembrance without any pretense. However, the film is not without plot. Instead of laying out each scene with a narrative precision, the film puts us in the emotional perspective of the character. This film isn’t so much watched as it is lived through. Brad Pitt plays domineering but loving Mr. O’Brien, who is a strict taskmaster to his children and seems unable to express into words his deep, stirring inner feelings. On the other end of the spectrum is Mrs. O’Brien (Jessica Chastain) who isn’t so much a character as she is an ideal of motherhood. Jack (Hunter McCracken as a child, Sean Penn as an adult) is very much the product of these two powerful figures in his life. The film is bookended by modern day sequences in Houston – and I’ve never seen Houston look as beautiful as how Emmanuel Lubezki shoots it here, all glass and sunlight – as Jack remembers his conflicted youth, and the loss of his brother. In the film’s opening, Mrs. O’Brien receives a letter, a telegram that shatters the O’Briens – the death of their child R.L. (Laramie Eppler, who looks uncannily like Pitt) when he is 19. It is assumed, because of the time and the manner of the telegram that he dies in Vietnam, but I think Malick deliberately left this vague, especially in today’s present circumstances. It doesn’t matter how he died – what matters is that his death sends the family into a deep questioning of their faith and why it happened. Mrs. O’Brien, in particular, takes R.L.’s death hard, asking God why, and receiving little comfort.
It’s in this part of the film that Malick takes us into the depths of Creation and into the beginnings of life on Earth. Audiences may struggle with the meaning behind it, but that’s the point – when we are given difficult moments in our lives, we question why, and our thoughts may turn to the very foundations of the universe to find our answer. This 20-minute sequence takes us from the creation of everything to the pool of water where the first life takes shape, to dinosaurs on the beach and in a forest, and in all of this we are shown the aspects of Mrs. O’Brien’s argument of nature and grace. Huge in scope, Malick himself seems to search for the truth as much as Mrs. O’Brien. Nature can be cruel, as demonstrated in a sequence where two dinosaurs meet in a forest, one dinosaur putting his heel to the other, fallen dinosaur’s head, almost teasing, much like a brother teases his younger.
From these origins of the world we go to Waco, Texas, and a loving couple, as they fall in love and have children. The three O’Brien boys, Jack, R.L., and Steve (Tye Sheridan), behave as children do – they play, they do their father’s bidding, they grow. R.L., especially, seems a sensitive youth, into music (in one of my favorite scenes of the film R.L. sits on the porch outside playing guitar as his father quietly accompanies him on the piano). The youngest, Steve, is quiet and unassuming. But it is Jack, the oldest, who is the most tempestuous, questioning his father’s authority and his own place in the world. The film portrays childhood wonderfully and truthfully – never has a film captured quite so well what it is like to be a young boy with the infinite summer ahead of him. In the meantime, Mr. O’Brien is struggling; feeling rejected by his peers and neighbors, he is increasingly tougher on his children as they grow older. In his rebellious nature, Jack starts to push back, and this becomes the central conflict of the film. Will Jack go the way of nature, or of grace? Is he his father’s son, or his mother’s, or both?
Brad Pitt is amazing in his performance. It is a simplification to say that he’s a simple abusive father. For Mr. O’Brien, his children are his hope to achieve in ways that he has not, and he truly loves them. At the same time, every moment of anger pushes them further and further away, and he is incapable of articulating the storm of emotion within him. Jessica Chastain is terrific as well, although as I said, her character is a very broad portrait of motherhood as opposed to anything specific. She seems to live to serve her husband, and only when he is gone away on a trip that she comes to life with the children, playing and enjoying life. Young Hunter McCracken’s Jack doesn’t feel like a performance – it feels like a life. His curiosity, his imagination, and his love for his family all shine through. It is an entirely genuine performance. Sean Penn isn’t in it much, but his performance is essential as a touchstone to the audience, especially in the film’s ending, which will either send filmgoers out either enraptured or just confused. I felt that the ending was Malick’s way of making peace with loss, and found it very effective.
Emmanuel Lubezki’s camerawork is transcendent. It’s one of the most beautifully shot films I’ve ever seen. The way he captures the light, the angles, and the playful movement – it’s cinematography on a level that seems larger than any accolades that could be thrown at it. Alexandre Desplat’s score is triumphant, and as the focus of the film shifts from cosmic to intimate in a breath’s time, his music accentuates the shift and stays cohesive. The effects work of the Creation sequence is immaculate – Douglas Trumbull of 2001 and CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND was a consultant on the visual effects, and it shows. There is a real weight to each vision, and as we go from the very foundations of the universe to present day Texas, it feels effortless.
But it is Terrence Malick, the master filmmaker, who creates something truly amazing with THE TREE OF LIFE. The film is a prayer, without being any specific religion (although the underpinnings seem decidedly Christian). The film’s portrayals of spirituality and our relationship to the universe and each other are very universal, and yet, I felt the film was intensely specific to my own life. I imagine my experience with THE TREE OF LIFE will not be unique. The film is both epic and intimate, both grandiose and personal, and challenging to the extreme. There will be those who will not be open to what the film offers. Because the film refuses to follow a traditional narrative, because the film wears its emotions on its sleeve, and because of the length, if you are not a diehard film fan, willing to take risks, I cannot recommend this film. As for me, I’ve seen it once, and I know I’ll be seeing it again. This summer will be full of action films, and superhero films, big budget effects extravaganzas that will promise an experience never seen before. But if any come close to what Terrence Malick’s THE TREE OF LIFE does, then they may have something to brag about. It is a difficult film, an ambitious film, and not for the casual filmgoer. THE TREE OF LIFE, for any true film fan, must be seen on the biggest screen that can be found. It is a celebration of life, hope, family, and a singular, transformative film experience.