Where to begin with a film like this? Terrence Malick’s fifth feature requires much more contemplation than a screening allows. Malick has been the subject of more discourse than any other director with such a sparse career. He is hailed, correctly, as a visionary and visually innovative storyteller. Tree of Life is, in many ways, his most Malickian film to date, whatever that means, and as a film that is already being deemed his magnum opus, it will surely remain in the cinephile conversation for years to come.
Tree of Life tells the story of Jack, the eldest son of Mr. And Mrs. O’Brien (played by Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain) from his birth to his early adolescence and then with a huge leap, his middle aged life (played by Sean Penn). That’s actually quite an understatement. Malick tells Jack’s story not from his own birth, but from the birth of the universe. In an already iconic and widely discussed sequence -- quite an indulgently long one, at that -- Malick uses the wizardry of the craftsmen behind the camera to bring his vision to the screen in the most elaborate, awe-inspiring manner. Partly to the credit of Emmanuel Lubezki and partly to that of the visual effects supervisors, the sequence plays like a majestic beginning to the film’s main narrative, which is essentially about Jack’s personal and emotional complications with his family.
He is a lost soul, confused about his past, his family, his wife, and the world around him. In his adolescence, he manifests his anger against his father in different ways. He drifts apart from his family when we see him accompany his friends on their tirade on an abandoned house in the neighbourhood. We see this in his eyes when he looks at his father fixing the car or when he runs along the river with his mother’s clothes in hand. And in these eyes and their expressiveness lies one of the film’s greatest strengths; that dialogue or conventional exposition has been rendered unnecessary with Malick’s expressionist direction and his actors’ immersive performances.
Tree of Life is the modern embodiment of what critics often -- generously in other films' cases -- call visual poetry. The lyricism in Malick's narration of this story conveys sensations that eliminate the need for traditional plot developments. Explanations are only offered sporadically and in passing. We are told early on that Jack’s brother died when he was nineteen and, although this particular twist matters greatly in the story, Malick doesn’t concern himself with it too much as a plot point. Instead, the focus is turned on to the reaction of the family to this tragedy. It’s the collective heartbreak the audience experiences from watching the O’Brien's in their grief that matter most. WInstinctively, we understand Mrs. O'Brien's need for solitude in grief. The agitation she feels with her relatives comes through in the subtlety of the motion of her body. We don’t need to be told explicitly that Mr. O’Brien always thought he could be a great musician; looking at him play the instrument with such spirit and passion in evident in his gestures, through the fluid movements of Malick’s camera, we feel the sensations he does.
Aiding Malick in materializing his ambitious vision are his actors who all deliver praiseworthy work. Brad Pitt, who is slowly working his way up my list of favourite actors, creates the perfect balance between the harsh demeanour of a stern 50s Texan father and his love for his family. Jessica Chastain, whom I admit I had not seen before, completely immerses herself in Mrs. O’Brien and despite having less material to work with than Pitt, avoids the pitfalls of the “supportive mother” role while capturing the angelic beauty of her character. No less impressive is newcomer Hunter McCracken whose career now seems to have the dreamiest start any actor could wish for. Having the task of portraying the internal dilemmas of his awkward age, McCracken lives up to the expectations of the role and becomes a pitch perfect picture of the angst of preadolescent boys and the transition from childhood innocence to a more mature compassion.
Whether Jack or the family as a whole has any connection to Malick’s own history is unknown to me, but if setting the film in his hometown of Waco, Texas is any indication, then the answer might be a yes. Despite Tree of Life’s massive scale and the grandiosity of some of its elements, particularly the aforementioned “creation of the universe sequence”, this is Malick’s most personal film to date. The picture he paints on the screen is the result of his philosophical questions and his long search for the meaning behind the universe and its creator; Concerns that he’s mulled over for so many years and finally brings to the screen now; Questions that he doesn’t answer so much as he proposes. And there lies another one of the film’s strong points. That Malick never force feeds his ideas. He asks us to think differently. He makes us look at simple quotidian things differently, but never makes emphatic assertions. Even the ubiquitous religious motifs don’t seem aggressive at all. The film might be a personal one, but anyone who’s willing to delve into Malick’s dazzling vision can connect with it.
Ultimately, if anything stops me from hailing Tree of Life as a true masterpiece, it’s the scar left on the face of the film by its very long editing process. Not exactly noticeable during the film’s exploration of Jack’s earlier years – mostly due to the free-spirited and arc-free storytelling – these editing inconsistencies and Malick’s obsession with finessing his work to perfection almost fail the film in the surreal beach sequence at the end. I don’t dislike that sequence per se. I think it does work thematically, but it feels more rumpled than nuanced stylistically and unfortunately ends the film on a less than perfect note.