|“The nuns taught us there were two ways through life – the way of nature and the way of grace. You have to choose which one to follow…” – Mrs. O’Brien (Jessica Chastain).
Delivering just his fifth film in nearly 40 years, Terrence Malick’s “The Tree Of Life” is as polarizing a commercially released film as you might ever encounter. I am at a loss to explain everything I have seen within its framework and I cannot begin to answer why Malick chose to tell (t)his story in the manner in which he did. After an initial viewing, I was stunned into submission by the exquisite cinematography, the boldness of the overall production, and the film itself. In full disclosure, a part of me feels somewhat ill equipped to provide an analysis befitting the scope and vision of the film.
Some have called it a masterpiece, some have called it pretentious and pointless. In the days removed from watching it, I am still thirsty for it and would welcome another crack at trying to understand the complexities Malick put forth on screen.
Essentially, “The Tree Of Life” tells a very basic story. In a modernized and landscape full of skyscrapers and corporate high-rises, Jack O’Brien (Sean Penn) is reflecting on his childhood in the 1950′s and the difficulties he experienced in his formative years. In flashback, his mother, Mrs. O’Brien, (Jessica Chastain) stays at home and tends to the house and children, while his father, Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt) struggles to make a living selling patents for a number of his inventions. As the oldest of three children, Jack stood tall, but became rebellious, and in his early adult years, suffered the tragedy of losing a brother, dead at just 19 years of age.
Over the course of the film, Malick eschews a traditional narrative format and utilizes very little dialogue, perhaps just 12-15 minutes exist within the film’s 138 running time. Instead, we hear the character’s thoughts and considerations via narration. Often, the dialogue is spoken to a higher power, certainly God (the film opens with a quote from the Book of Job), and in the case of Mrs. O’Brien, the effect is powerful and intoxicating. However, for those seeking convention and linear storytelling, this technique will be off-putting for some. This approach by Malick caused some notable critics and film writers to not only decry the film as artsy and self-gratifying, but resulted in audience members walking out of theaters and asking for refunds. All I know is that what seems clearly evident here, from the opening moments, is that Terrence Malick is searching for something – motivations of youth, parallels between this fictional life he is writing and presenting on screen and the life he knew growing up as a teenager in the same era and time period.
Malick’s films are never an easy watch and arguably nothing is more strange or bizarre then the shift the film takes at approximately the 20-minute mark when we leave our modern era and 1950s flashbacks for a breathtaking, if not completely confounding sequence which depicts the creation of the sun, the stars, and the universe. The obvious comparison for these moments leap right towards Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” and there is some legitimacy for such an analogy. Malick employed the use of Douglas Turnbull, who created the visual effects work on Kubrick’s 1969 science-fiction masterpiece and the work here, and again, is incredible. Many will wonder, quite frankly, what the hell any of this has to do with the story of a man trying to come to grips with a troubled childhood and if you throw up your hands and tune out and turn off “The Tree Of Life”, a part of me would not blame you. I offer no explanation why Malick chose to place this sequence where he does, but regardless, the sequence is a stunning cinematic moment.
When the film reconnects to the main story, we are privy to some terrific performances. The aforementioned Jessica Chastain owns the opening coda of the film and is simply stunning throughout the remainder of the film. Mrs. O’Brien is desperately trying to keep her boys on the straight and narrow, beholden to a thankless role of homemaker and full-time mother, and always willing to try and make life easier for her husband. Brad Pitt is tremendous later in the film when he begins to unravel and becomes a father he never envisioned he would be. As a result of his increasingly strict and menacing nature, notable changes arise in 12-year old Jack (played brilliantly by newcomer, Hunter McCracken). Initially, his anger and rebellious nature seems rather familiar but with a cut of an eye, a gnash of his jaw, and a piercing look, McCracken conveys raw and exposed pain, confusion, and abandonment. Penn bookends the film and builds adequately off of the heavy lifting McCracken does throughout much of the film.
Visually, “The Tree Of Life” has no equal. Every shot is a photograph. Every image painstakingly rendered in a most detailed and sumptuous way. The work of Oscar-nominated cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki is a revelation and there are innumerable images that are so beautifully composed on screen, they not only captivate your attention, they might even move you to tears. Alexandre Desplat’s score is tremendous and strikes a perfect balance between Malick’s linear and non-linear moments. Alongside the aforementioned visual effects, the sound mix is also stellar. A disclaimer at the beginning of the DVD/Blu-Ray makes a reference to watching the film with the volume turned way up, at the request of the filmmakers. There are multiple layers to decipher, sounds stacked on top of sounds, and the soundtrack for the film is also engaging and rich.
And despite everything extraordinary about Malick’s film, “The Tree Of Life” is an outright challenge. You must be focused and engaged with the film to tolerate the seemingly disjointed musings about nature and life and the connections with people and nature, the frequent shifts in tone and pacing, and the aforementioned visual effects and seemingly unrelated images that arrive at random times. The film embraces ambiguity. For me, making this all palatable is that no matter how obtuse or off the rails “The Tree Of Life” may seem, there is a warmth and comfort which radiates throughout. For Terrence Malick, a famed recluse who rarely, if ever, is seen out in public, he is trying to connect with his audience on an emotional level.
Importantly and impressively, a striking element to the picture is that, at times, there is a youthful and child-like wonder on display. Frequently, the camera moves loose and free, looking at the sky, staring up at trees, and swaying to and fro with a endearing innocence. When the focus is placed on Chastain, the film has a softer and almost loving quality, hue, and tone. Scenes with Brad Pitt and Sean Penn are clinical and cold, the edits tight and more orderly. Curiously, Malick employed no less than 5 editors on the piece, and while I may listen to the argument that the film is imbalanced and a mess because of it, somehow the film retains a constant voice throughout. Almost in spite of itself, “The Tree Of Life” succeeds because of Malick’s unyielding and frustrating dedication to telling his story in the manner he insists on telling it.
A lifelong project for Malick, “The Tree Of Life” won the Palme D’Or at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival and when the final credits came on screen, a resounding mixture of cheers and boos filled the screening room. There are people who will check this out and shut it down after 20 or 30 minutes and likely hold to the gripe that the film is garbage. Fair enough. I acknowledge that this is not a film for everyone, but I also recognize that this is a film that refuses to play nice in the Verse-Chorus-Verse world of popular entertainment.
There are moments I loved, found achingly intense and overpoweringly beautiful, and moments where I simply shook my head in complete and utter confusion. And you will as well.
But as I consider it and ponder it and think of “The Tree Of Life” in its totality, I cannot say anything other than the film is nothing short of extraordinary and a film people will be talking about, writing about, and analyzing for years and years to come. And most curiously, the man who can likely explain his vision and his intentions is the most closed-in and shy filmmaker of the last several decades. I wonder if Terrence Malick has found peace in his journey with “The Tree Of Life”. With Malick’s outright refusal to grant interviews or even have his picture taken anymore, we will likely never know.
Fans of thought-provoking and unconventional filmmaking, which arrives with layers upon layers of text to sort through and consider, here is your latest project. “The Tree Of Life” searches and probes the answers for so many things, that multiple viewings of the film are almost a necessity.
The film does have a moving, tragic, and affecting story at its heart. The performances from Jessica Chastain, Brad Pitt, and first-time youth actor Hunter McCracken are riveting, compelling, and resonate through everything happening in and around their story.
Find me a film this year that looks better than this one. Every frame is painstakingly created, like memories and photos carefully memorialized in a scrapbook or photo album. The sound, the cinematography, the Desplat score all works on creating a universe within a universe.
This is one of the best films of 2011, but is equally as exhilarating as it is defiantly personal and uncompromising. It will spark debate, raise questions, and stay with you for a very long time afterwards.