The Tree of Life (2011)

Brad Pitt, Hunter McCracken consider “The Tree of Life,”

Written and directed by Terrence Malick. Produced by Greg Eliason, Dede Gardner, Sarah Green, Grant Hill, Brad Pitt, Bill Pohland. Music by Alexandre Desplat. Photographed by Emmanuel Lubezki. Edited by Hank Corwin, Jay Rabinowitz, Daniel Rezende, Billy Weber, Mark Yoshikawa. Production designed by Jack Fisk. Starring Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, Jessica Chastain, Hunter McCracken, Laramie Eppler, Tye Sheridan, Fiona Shaw.

Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life is a sprawling and ambitious piece of work that, in its best moments, convinces us that we are undeniably watching an event—a pure film made by perhaps the purest filmmaker working today. In its worst moments (and it has them), The Tree of Life reveals itself as a piece of art that bites off more than it can chew, and then keeps right on chewing. It couples an epic scale with an intimate scope, and has sequences that play like poetry. And then still other sequences that play like, well, bad poetry, an evocation of nothing in a vain attempt to appear meaningful. For its subject matter it approaches nothing less than the meaning of life, the ways in which a person must or must not live, the existence and necessity of pain and suffering, and—cherry on top—the very nature of the universe itself. It serves these topics with intelligence and honor. But it also shares little with us, the audience, while at the same time expecting us to bring much to the table—perhaps too much. The film is impeccably acted, gorgeously photographed and impressively mounted, but I fear that at times (especially towards the end), Malick is speaking on a frequency only he can hear.

First a few words about Terrence Malick. Malick is perhaps the purest poet of the filmic medium, and he commands attention…in a very particular way. Days of Heaven, Badlands and The Thin Red Line are his masterpieces, and while some take issue with his meditative, deliberate style, he operates on a wavelength that is pure music to many: confident, bold, delicate, nuanced. As a storyteller he favors minimalism and expressionism. He only has dialogue when a scene cannot be done without it. He values scenes of nature, landscapes, and interiors that can be nudged into impressionistic shapes. He brings out the best in cinematographers (Tak Fujimoto, Haskell Wexler and John Toll have all gone to Malick school). He is a perfectionist, and an obsessive. All of these qualities are present in The Tree of Life, but there’s a hollowness that threatens to overwhelm the proceedings. Malick casts his net so wide that despite being about such vital things, I still am not completely sure the film is actually about anything.

That may sound unfair, and I actually agree. A lot of brickbats have been thrown Malick’s way in the name of The Tree of Life, and one in particular—that the film is pretentious—I want to dispel right now. This is not a pretentious movie. An obscure one, perhaps, but not pretentious, because no pretentious film could be this deeply felt. Drawing from classical art, the Bible, the Bhagavad Gita, the work of high philosophers, and even Malick’s own upbringing in Texas, The Tree of Life is a melting pot of ideas, but they are not misappropriated: instead, they have function and weight even when we’re not sure if they add up. Like a pointillist painting, The Tree of Life is composed of individual pieces that we appreciate, but we cannot be sure if they connect. Neither is Malick, I’m convinced, and that’s fine. But…well…

See, it’s frustrating. Malick clearly has something he wants to say, that he needs to say, but I don’t think he ever quite says it. His film asks a lot of questions, mostly centering on the existential musings of Jack (Sean Penn), who questions his place in the universe and recalls the formative memories of his youth. Malick’s queries are intriguing ones, and draw us in. We are curious to see where he will go. But then he doesn’t go anywhere, while a narrative twist provides the illusion that he has. I’m not sure what we’re supposed to extract from the film’s concluding moments, but it’s clear we’re supposed to have something of a higher grade than what the film has supplied up to that point, and I don’t think it supplies that at all.

The film has been frequently compared to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). That may not seem fair, given the towering stature Kubrick’s masterpiece has within culture, but I can think of few other American films that so radically tackle big ideas, and question mankind’s place in the grand scheme of things. There are other similarities, too: both movies consist of four specific movements, often punctuated by classical music (Kubrick threw out Alex North’s score for 2001, while Malick barely uses Alexandre Desplat’s compositions for the film). Both have extended sequences that exist outside of time and space, invite us to consider an astonishing sight, and relate to it as more than a simple special effect. Both films downplay the rigorous demands of narrative, giving breadth to key sequences and allowing the characters to exist less as people and more as portentous signifiers. Both films involve a character’s unbeknownst search for a higher intelligence, one that (wisely) never makes it onscreen but is arguably present nonetheless. And both films have obscure conclusions that seem poised on the edge of breakthrough.

When it comes to the differences between the two, there are key ones: Kubrick’s film, by virtue of its linear story, has a momentum that matches its curiosity. Malick’s film, as it is essentially about a family poisoned by grief, is non-linear, introspective, confused, spiral-shaped, and arguably doesn’t arrive at an ending at all. Kubrick’s film brims with intellectual excitement, while Malick’s tempts itself with navel-gazing. Kubrick’s film is cold and unflinching, while Malick’s is sentimental in its appreciation of a cold concept. Both movies explore the topic of man’s place in the universe, but only Kubrick’s feels comfortable with the notion that the universe does not care.

The most crucial difference between the two works, however, is that Malick’s film is about characters, and Kubrick’s is not. This is a frequent criticism leveled at Kubrick, who in his intelligence and rigid adherence to logic perhaps had some things in common with the antagonist computer HAL in 2001. But 2001, in its structure, makes a point of dispensing with characters when they are no longer of use to the bigger narrative, because that overall narrative is about men, not a man. The Tree of Life, however, filters its big questions through the prism of a family drama, which increases their immediacy but curiously muffles their impact. Malick’s film, by its very design, keeps us at a remove from the drama, so that in the end when Malick gestures towards catharsis we might be forgiven for…well…for not really caring.

I’m not saying the film is bad. Or poorly made. No, not that. But I do think the film miscalculates by making the fulcrum of Malick’s philosophical explorations an emotional beat rather than a conceptual one. These are uncommon ideas that Malick is playing with, and I would appreciate…well… I know it’s a copout to suggest that’s his job to conceive of it, not mine, but I think Malick’s ultimate solution is a copout as well. While I may have an attachment to Jack, who we see in the film primarily as a boy, we have little attachment to Jack as a man, played by Sean Penn as a collection of overwrought Sean Penn-style mannerisms. Penn is barely even in the movie, anyway. And when the film’s climax hinges on a key sequence involving a beach and an unexpected appearance…well…so what? I don’t mean that to say “What does it mean?” I mean, in the grand scheme of things. In the arena that the movie claims to be about. So flipping what?

I think an important thing to note is that Kubrick’s film is unabashedly a science fiction film, while The Tree of Life is not. What this means is that Kubrick’s film feels free to invent in the name of pursuing its personal truth, while The Tree of Life is uncertain, perhaps even timid. Kubrick’s spaceships, obelisks and aliens are of course a writer’s invention to facilitate an exploration of deeper themes, while Malick sticks (except for one scene) to the recognizable environs of suburban houses and aspects of childhood, parenthood, etc. Even Malick’s crazier sequences, like one that imagine the formation of the earth and an encounter with dinosaurs is drawn from scientific fact and not speculative future. Some may point to this as evidence that Malick’s work is purer, or more disciplined. I think instead it marks it as less organized, and more dutiful.

Already I have spoken at length about the direction, and criticized the writing, and have not really mentioned the acting, even though that is the very thing that propels us past the issues with the writing (2001 has the exact opposite condition…there I go again). Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain star, both of them powerfully, as Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien, a married couple in 1950s Texas. When the film starts, they have two children, and then before long they have three. Sounds plain enough, until I warn you that these scenes are chronologically backwards. The opening of The Tree of Life is less an establishment of story and more a collage of individual pinpricks—tone, emotion, sensation, blurry grief. Chastain is superlative in this film, perhaps most prominently during an early moment when she receives a telegram of her son’s death. Mr. O’Brien, in a daze, can only watch her as she shuts down.

This is a curtain-raiser to the second movement in Tree of Life, which…shall we say..backtracks a little. To the formation of the Earth in fact, and the beginnings of life on it, shot in striking photography that could play as a prelude to the BBC’s Planet Earth. Like Kubrick’s film, these scenes dare us to be bored, were it not for the fact that this is the only time in our life we will ever see a scene like this. Eventually, life crawls onto the shores, and we speed ahead to the time of dinosaurs. In one short but important moment,  a dying parasurolophous is encountered by one its peers. The healthy creature puts a taloned foot on top of the carcass, and watches. Blinks. Then it scampers away, lesson over. There is something pitiless and Darwinian in this sequence (which echoes 2001’s “Dawn of Man” prologue), providing an essential contrast to the following portions of the film.

We now move into the centerpiece of Tree of Life, a long sequence that examines the O’Brien family. More specifically, it follows the children, starting with the birth of the oldest, Jack, and watches him grow up in scenes of startling beauty. Malick’s intention here, I think, is to evoke a reverie framed by Penn’s older Jack, lost in thought. What he accomplishes is an extended memory sequence that mingles with our own childhoods. It doesn’t matter if you didn’t grow up in the 50s, or in the suburbs, or in Texas, because there are details within the web of Jack’s story that are familiar pangs. We feel fright, jealousy, rebellion, even love. Do I have to tell you that Malick grew up pretty much in exactly the kind of neighborhood that the movie depicts? No, of course not.

I have to underline the skill with which Malick works his magic in this sequence. It is the movie’s longest, and most memorable—much like the HAL vs. the astronauts subplot in 2001, it provides too many indelible moments to be pushed aside. Here Malick and his cinematographer, Emannuelle Lubezki labor hard (yet making it all seem effortless) to create a recognizable family life made up of details: playtime in the yard, toys shared amongst the children, secretive looks in neighbor’s windows, chores overseen by a stern father, sunlight streaming through the woods, a foot washing itself in a sprinkler on a summer day.

We learn about the children. Sort of. Jack is easily identifiable, but his two brothers are difficult to tell apart, and the problem is compounded when the neighborhood kids enter into the mix. Jack is our focal point, as his emotions are the ones that come through most vividly. Even when the secondary characters have moments to themselves, they feel incomplete, as these are Jack’s memories, and these half-glimpses at hidden worlds he can only process as an underscoring of his own feelings. He feels pride, jealousy, and the stirrings of lust. He flirts with rebellion and anger. He reacts to the stern lectures of his father with hatred, and this makes him shameful. He has a small perception that the world is bigger than his street, and peers into a window one night to see a bitter family fight, but he can’t fully process it all, sinking back into his own self-centered morass. He is a child, after all. Every single shot here is a work of beauty.

What Malick and Lubezki are getting at here, (again: I think), is the elusive nature of memory, and its subjective quality that eludes so many filmmakers. Many flashbacks in Hollywood films are engineered to deliver exposition, or do the work of character development, or something equally utilitarian. Some of these aims are not accomplished well, and some are. But they never really get at the slippery nature of memory, as thoughts ooze in and out of each other, without explanation, rhythm or even readily apparent insight. Jack’s memory is not a plot device or a screenwriter’s trick. It exists in the film as Jack’s memory, warts and all. Malick’s approach suggests that he has tapped into something that he cannot control, only observe.

Although Jack’s memory is by its very nature obscure, and not subject to the typical Hollywood screenwriting rules that help you put flashbacks together as if they were IKEA furniture, we still get a sense of the dynamics of the family. Mr. O’Brien is strict but loving, while Mrs. O’Brien is angelic and soft. There is unspoken friction between the two adults regarding these traits. At one point, Mr. O’Brien goes on a business trip, and the time the children are given to be with their mother is therapeutic, but also makes them ill-prepared for when father returns.

There is dialogue early on that hits on a central theme of the movie: that each man must chose either the way of grace or the way of nature. Mrs. O’Brien represents grace: loving, warm, somewhat unattainable. Mr. O’Brien, on the other hand, is nature: challenging, hard, and definitely earthbound. We are never given much clue whether these two dueling forces in any way correspond to the actual personalities of the actual O’Briens, nor should we. This is how Jack sees them, and the movie is not about anything else.

Where the film falters, I think, is when it finally has to wrap things up and decide what it is ultimately about. With the framing device of Penn’s memories now concluded, the film turns especially metaphysical and strained, with a conclusion that brought to mind Steven Spielberg’s A.I., another film that tried too hard to be sweeping and sentimental when it should have been tough and honest. Malick’s film at this point trades its philosophical musings for spiritual mumbo-jumbo, and while there’s no denying the power of the performances here, the whole affair feels cheap. Malick’s ultimate setting for resolution feels trite and obvious, and I have yet to be persuaded that the film’s ultimate conclusion isn’t little more than counterfeit faith—a placebo, even. If that were his goal, then the whole affair would sound a nihilistic note that would be interesting, but audiences wouldn’t accept. Perhaps they’d be right. But I can’t really accept this, because it’s just so overdone.

The narrative of arc of Tree of Life is simple: it’s a movie about a man who is sad, remembers his childhood, grows sadder, has an intriguing visison, and becomes happy. This isn’t a spoiler, because spoilers don’t really exist in Tree of Life. The content is in the imagery, and the tones and emotions raised. All fine, but the movie’s ending just doesn’t work for me. It feels simplistic, and not in a knowing way.

What carries Tree of Life through, and makes it worth watching anyway, is the preciousness of Malick’s images filtered through Lubezki’s lens. Some visuals are just arresting, others are ethereal and lovely, still others are motion picture still life. And still others feel like Norman Rockwell told from the perspective of a dark corner of canvas.  There is an elegiac quality throughout: half-nostalgia, half sadness, and we note the resonance with the film’s buried themes. Mr. O’Brien regrets his life and tries to brush those regrets aside: the way of nature has no time for introspection. Whereas Mrs. O’Brien, loving and kind, is at times maddeningly passive, making Mr. O’Brien the instigator in every argument almost by default. Malick leaves us to consider these mysteries and doesn’t answer them, even with the insight of Future Jack, because how much do we really understand about our childhoods after the fact? A nice touch: in Jack’s memories, no one ever addresses his parents by name, because in our memories our parents don’t have names, even though afterwards we have been taught that they do.

Last Tuesday, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences named Tree of Life as one of the best pictures of 2011, so that it will compete in the 84th Annual Academy Awards. It has earned this place. It is a frustrating film, but also a daring one, and although one could call it hollow, it is maybe hollow by design, a design that, like the universe itself, few of us can comprehend or understand. It is not exactly rewarding, yet it has indelible rewards.  I’m not sure what it means, but not for a second do I regret watching it.

The Oscars will air on February 26th. The Tree of Life will not win best picture (that place is already all-but-reserved for The Artist). A lot of films don’t get that honor. As a matter of fact, 2001: A Space Odyssey didn’t even get that honor. Instead, the best picture award of 1968 went to…Oliver. When was the last time you had a long discussion with someone about Oliver? I thought so.


NEXT TIME PERIOD: 1999 – Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace

PREVIOUS TIME PERIOD: 1949 – The Third Man


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