The Tree of Life is not the film for you. If you’re reading this and don’t already have an idea of who director Terrence Malick is, then you better stop reading now. For those that saw his last feature, The New World, and thought, “Man, this is boring,” well his latest isn’t going to suddenly change your opinion. It’s a test of your patience and focus. It’s also his most audacious film to date.
After receiving a chorus of boos when it premiered at Cannes, the film was later awarded the coveted Palme d’Or. Clearly this is a case where the judging panel was eager to reward Malick for his contributions to cinema (the director has only made five films in thirty-eight years). But rather than fall into that camp, I subscribe to the notion that they must have seen what I saw – a director’s unbridled ambition and with it a feature that is meant to be more of a meditative experience than actual film.
Adhering to his own concepts, Malick’s films tend to infuse humanity with chaos. In Badlands, he juxtaposes a teenage girl’s romanticism with the grim reality of the sociopath that makes her his accomplice in a killing spree. Days of Heaven is all about the unraveling – how one bad event spurs a series of unfortunate ones. The Thin Red Line deals with morality in the disguise of a war drama. And The New World is a romantic adventure of sorts that is less about the founding of Jamestown, Virginia, and more about Pocahontas and how she transforms through her relationships with Capt. John Smith and John Rolfe.
Charting Malick’s path of a director over a nearly forty-year span, he’s been able to tell the stories he has wanted to tell and have genre archetypes act as a selling device to on-the-fence viewers. The Tree of Life follows a similar path as a family drama about a Texas family in the 1950s. Call it a loss of innocence or coming of age, it is through Jack (Hunter McCracken, a nonprofessional in a standout performance), the oldest of three brothers, where the story finds its heart. But before the drama unfolds there is a profound statement by Jack’s mother (Jessica Chastain), who is only identified as Mrs. O’Brien in the film, when she acknowledges that there are two ways through life: “the way of Nature, and the way of Grace.”
Two paths. One is dictated by Mother Earth – the other by the Holy Father. However, in the case of Life those roles are occupied by the opposite sex. To Malick, Father represents Nature. Jack’s father (Brad Pitt) is the breadwinner of the family but is unhappy. Unhappy in life, unhappy in business, he is prone to anger, dishing out tough-love to his three boys. Jack bears the brunt of most of his father’s frustrations. Mr. O’Brien leans on his eldest hard to be his own man but in his likeness, unlike Mrs. O’Brien who as the waiflike Mother is a complete contrast to her disciplinarian husband.
The pull of a domineering father or nurturing mother may dictate the path that Jack takes, but Malick isn’t just interested in telling a family story and leaving it at that. He is a naturalist, and like his previous works, Malick applies a collage of nature photography with his narrative. This time he’s added some computerized effects as he travails the universe. Within the first twenty minutes we are whisked away from current day to the 1950s. Then from there we get a lengthy sequence that goes to the beginning – of the story and us. We see the formation of the solar system; the dinosaur age; and, then, find ourselves back in Waco, Tex., in the O’Brien household.
Shots of volcanoes erupting and dinosaurs might seem to clutter the screen, acting as distractions to the narrative. And you would be right to assume so. It’s almost as if Malick could care less about the central story; he does everything in his power to take us away from the O’Briens. However, as I reflect on the film’s disjointedness, I’m wrestling with the notion that it has a clearer mindset than most straightforward narratives.
Terrence Malick will never be labeled “an actor’s director.” Performances don’t necessarily make or take away from his films. In Malick’s eyes, a shot of a blade of grass or the sound a tree limb snapping off makes is just as important. Still, as sparsely populated as this film is with actors, there are memorable characters. Brad Pitt as the domineering father figure was originally to have been played by Heath Ledger. (Ledger, suffering from exhaustion after completing The Dark Knight, had to pull out of his Tree of Life commitment and was later replaced by Pitt.) Pitt has had showier roles in the past, but here he plays Mr. O’Brien with commanding authority. As the narrative changes, so does his character. A failure when he looks in the mirror, his is a character that hasn’t quite found that happy medium in life and mostly appears angry at the world.
Jessica Chastain is a delight as Mrs. O’Brien. Though still a relative unknown in the acting world, it is clear that she will be one to watch. The greatness in her performance isn’t derived from robust soliloquies or a leading presence. It’s when she remains silent, enjoying simple acts – like washing her legs with a garden hose – where she is most eloquent.
Of the topline performers, Sean Penn as adult Jack is by far the weakest. Working in an architect firm in Dallas, the job seems to fit Jack’s personal and physical state. All those years of tough loving by his father has transferred into a profession that sees him trying to build things as he sees them (his own image, in essence). Penn doesn’t as much as act as take up space. He walks around, starring into Dallas skyline, appearing lost. His father’s influence has made him hard and unable to deal with inevitabilities (the death of a younger brother leads him to speculate on the path he has taken).
It could be debated if Sean Penn’s role was a wasted performance or was all a part of Malick’s grand scheme, because the rest of the film is close to perfection. Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography is ridiculous (in a good way). His use of natural light, which is a Malick staple, helps create little masterpieces in every scene. And the lack of staging and hitting marks helps to ensure that Malick’s film be more about discovering the actors in their own environment rather than have them perform for the camera.
If you’ve read this far with no idea of who Terrence Malick is, I have to commend you. His work is definitely not for everyone. I’d go as far as insisting you clear your schedule to watch a Malick feature when you are your most alert. The Tree of Life isn’t something to watch late into the night. Even reflecting on the film after one viewing, I’m not sure if I completely grasped all of the themes. Encompassing of life and death, of nature and faith, of evolution and the afterlife, Malick has expertly conveyed chunks of time in a little more than two hours. It is a challenging work to be sure but it’s also one of the most remarkable achievements in cinema this year.
Travis Leamons is one of the Inside Pulse Originals and currently holds the position of Managing Editor at Inside Pulse Movies. He's told that the position is his until he's dead or if "The Boss" can find somebody better. I expect the best and I give the best. Here's the beer. Here's the entertainment. Now have fun. That's an order!