Where to begin with a film like this? Terrence Malick’s fifth feature requires much more discourse than one viewing and a blog post allows. Malick has caused more conversation than any director with such a sparse career could, mostly because of how unique his visual and storytelling style is, and yet, Tree of Life is in many ways his most Malickian film to date. This leads me to believe I should refrain from writing a “review” on the film until I can afford to give it another look, but then again, this blog is my main gateway for conversation, so I’ll sound off with a little bit of my thoughts until then.
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 all nature. In an already iconic and widely discussed sequence, and quite an indulgently long one at that, Malick uses the wizardry of the craftsmen at his service to bring his vision to the screen in the most elaborate way possible. 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 complications with his family.
He is a lost soul, confused about his past, his family, his wife, and the world around him. As he grows up, we see him manifest 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 neighbourhood house. 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 his hands. And in these eyes and their expressivity lies one of the film’s greatest strengths; that the need for any dialogue or exposition has been almost entirely removed with Malick’s expressionist direction and his actors’ immersive performances.
For me, Tree of Life defines what some critics call visual poetry. Malick doesn’t need to tell us what the plot is or what exactly is happening to inject the sensation he wants into us. Not to say that we aren’t given any explanations. We are told in the beginning 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, he focuses on the reaction of the family to this tragedy. It’s the collective experience of grief we feel from watching the O’Brien’s in their grief that matter most. We don’t need to be told that Mrs. O’Brien needs to be alone after her son’s death. 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 that Mr. O’Brien always thought he could be a great musician; Looking at him play the organ with such spirit and passion in his eyes, through the fluid movements of Malick’s camera, we feel his sensation.
Of course, 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.