The Tree of Life (2011)

In the opening minutes of The Tree of Life, Mrs. O’Brien (Jessica Chastain) tells the audience there are two ways through life: the way of nature and the way of grace. The way of nature is cruel and self-serving while the way of grace is open and loving. While Director Terrence Malick’s previous films have balanced its depictions of both nature and grace, The Tree of Life strays too deep into the way of nature, losing some of the grace along the way.

Malick’s visual display becomes sell-serving and indulgent. While one of the finest looking films of recent years, it becomes clear that there are too may moments that exist for the purpose of visual ecstasy. While Malick is certainly a visual maker, before even that he is a poetic one, committed to the rhythm of the images.

Almost all the problems of this film can be isolated in Malick’s ambition to capture the origins of the universe. It’s justified as a visualization of a verse in the Bible that is displayed at the opening of the film, Job 38:4: “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?” In the context of the Book of Job, it is God’s response to Job’s demands for God to justify allowing him to suffer.

While this sequence is grand, the images slowly evolve from something mysterious into something more and more familiar, after a few minutes it becomes visuals for the sake of visuals, unable to maintain a steady pace. And it is a sequence without dialogue, characters or conflict, simply a majestic sequences of images.

While it’s given a thematic justification, the truth is that this sequence represents what Malick initially intended to be a separate film, an experimental documentary on the origins of the universe. It was to tie into the crux of The Tree of Life which was a period family drama. Along the way, the documentary got scrapped. Instead of abandoning it, Malick decided to still try to accommodate his original vision and stuff it into this film.

And yet, as much as this is the most troubling–and will likely be the most talked about–part of the film, it’s perhaps twenty minutes of a two hour and twenty minute film. This is not to say that the rest of the film is conventional. It’s Malick’s most audacious, bold and ambitious film, yet also his most narrowly focused.

Almost the rest of the film takes place in the neighborhood of the O’Brien family during the ‘50s in the city of Waco, Texas (which, incidentally is my home town). They’re a family of simple means, Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt) works as a supervisor at the local factor while Mrs. O’Brien stays home and takes care of the boys, the eldest of which is Jack (Hunter McCracken). Most of the film is through Jack’s eyes as he experiences the world around him and wanders about the neighborhood.

The film follows Jack from his birth into his young childhood in a run of images depicting his growth from an infant, into a toddler and on. This sequence is representative of Malick going even farther with his style than before. Here, long stretches of the film are sustained through the play of images and very brief amounts of narration. There’s little dialogue and even less exposition.

Malick leaves a lot of responsibility on the audience. He doesn’t stop to explain anything and if he can find a way to leave out narrative information he doesn’t need to show, he probably has. What this means is that not every moment makes immediate sense, the audience has to grasp at it and struggle with moment after moment to infer what missing knowledge there might be.

This also might explain the perplexing nature of a number of scenes with Jack all grown up (played by Sean Penn). Here, he’s stuck amidst tall buildings, having lost his way. Perhaps the majority of the film is him ruminating on his childhood, or perhaps it’s a bookend to give way to the final sequence of the film.

Some might argue that these moments are so ambivalent that they have no meaning, just a fleeting feeling, but there’s a clear modality behind these moments, a meaning and intent, a force drawing together these moments into something more cohesive. There’s not a clear narrative thread, or perhaps even a thematic thread that the film gives the audience to place these pieces into easy categories of development.

More than anything else, this presentation shows that Malick makes movies like people write poems. It’s about the rhythm, the movement and the beauty. It’s about evoking a mood and a sensation, crafting something that enraptures the audience instead of entertaining them. The meaning is there, but you’re likely to spend too much time getting hung up on one tree or trying to unify the entire forest. Sometimes, it’s just about admiring the world around us.

That being said, if there was a unifying thread to the majority of this film it would go back to the idea of the two ways through life. While Mr. O’Brien seeks the way of nature, searching for success and wealth, Mrs. O’Brien seeks the way of grace, imbuing love and forgiveness upon her children. Jack is caught between these two, he can feel himself straying from the way of grace as he emerges more and more into the way of nature.

And speaking of Jack, Hunter McCracken is spectacular in this film. For such a young child, he has an amazing amount of restraint and conveys so much with so little. He’s perfectly in tune with the complex and abstract nature of what the film is trying to be, far more than the adults around him, even though they all give strong performances as well.

But, as usual, the greatest performer in any Malick film is the camera. Emmanuel Lubezki, who also shot The New World, recollaborates with Malick in order to capture one of the finest looking films since, well, The New World. The camera is simultaneously able to romanticize and distance itself from the camera, balancing both the emotional and intellectual approach to the filmmaking.

A good two hours of this film is one of the finest American films since The New World. However, Malick’s desire to accommodate his personal goals brings in a sequence that doesn’t gel with the rest of the film. It’s not bad, it’s actually quite good, but it’s not what the film needs, it’s what Malick wants. The Tree of Life reaches for a magnificence far beyond even the wildest dreams of almost any filmmaker, and while it captures some of its majesty, it never fully grasps it.

© 2011 James Blake Ewing