By Linc Leifeste | June 3, 2011
Director: Terrence Malick
Writer: Terrence Malick
Starring: Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, Jessica Chastain
It’s exhilirating, if a bit disconcerting, to watch a film and see your own mental images flash by on the screen. I’m not talking about what it must feel like for an actor to see their filmed work on the big screen or even the sensation of watching the results of having your creation (novel, screenplay, etc) turned into a film. No, I’m talking about the sensation of seeing your own deeply internalized childhood memories and impressions flashed on the screen in perfectly captured detail. For me, Terence Malick has managed to do no less than that with his ambitious new masterpiece, The Tree of Life.
The film is centered around the story of the O’Brien family’s life in 1950’s Waco, Texas, with particular focus on the oldest of the three O’Brien boys, Jack. While the majority of the film focuses on a relatively short period of time in this one family’s life, ultimately the film’s gaze takes in a much bigger landscape. Filtered through the Old Testament book of Job, The Tree of Life is one filmmaker’s attempt to ask the big questions about our very existence. Where do we come from? What is our nature? What is our role in this world? Why do the good suffer along with the bad? Wise enough to refrain from trying to give any definitive answers, director Terence Malick seems content with asking the questions in this philosophical, and frankly spiritual, film.
The film opens with a quote from the book of Job, in which God answers Job’s questioning of his suffering with a question of his own, “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the Earth?” After a short opening segment focused on the O’Brien parents dealing with the sudden and unexpected death of their 19 year old son R. L. (Laramie Eppler), and immediately following a voiced-over query from Mrs. O’Brien about why her son has been taken from her, Malick shows he takes God’s query to Job seriously by taking the viewer on a roughly 20-minute visual tour of our primordial progress, including the Big Bang, the first stirrings of life, life’s evolution to more complex forms, and ultimately a short dinosaur drama (and I’ll admit to being slightly discombobulated at the sight of CGI dinosaurs in a Malick film) followed by the image of their extinction event. Whether Malick attributes all of this to God or simply to the laws of science isn’t made clear and is really immaterial. Either way, the epic majesty and mystery are equally profound.
From there Malick turns his focus to the O’Brien family’s 1950’s idyllic life in Waco, as filtered through the memories of an adult Jack (Sean Penn). The domineering patriarch of the family and keeper of a dictatorial dinner table, Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt) is an engineer determined to get ahead in a world that he sees as harsh and predatory. And he’s determined to see that his boys are aware of the cruel nature of life and are prepared to face it head on. Mrs. O’ Brien (Jessica Chastain), clearly idolized by Jack (and by film-maker Malick) is an unbelievably angelic and loving mother. As a wife she’s allowed no voice but as a mother, particulary when allowed time alone with her boys, she comes to life. A voice-over narration provides a summation of the differing natures of Jack’s father and mother; “There are two ways through life: the way of nature and the way of grace.”
This recounting of Jack’s childhood, the heart of the film, tells the family’s story through a fragmented series of childhood memories. The fact that I felt like my own childhood memories were at times being flashed on the big screen is testament to both Malick’s and cinematographer Emanual Lubezki’s astonishing ability to present the world as seen through the eyes of a child. There are countless stunningly beautiful images, enough that I consider this to be one of the most visually beautiful films I’ve ever seen, but what makes these images truly powerful is the way they are masterfully weaved together to seamlessy paint a picture much bigger than the individual parts. I could have contentedly sat and watched the O’Brien family story unfold for endless hours.
One recurring motif is the love and conflict inherent in the relationship between brothers. One visually memorable presentation of this dynamic is when we see young Jack as a first-born child being lovingly held by his parents only to later see a shot of him warily circling his new-born brother asleep in a crib, presenting a clear sense of his distinction being encroached on by the arrival of a brother. Likewise, when Jack senses a special bond developing between his father, an accomplished church organist wounded by his own failure to pursue a life in music, and his younger brother who has begun to show an affinity for the guitar, the simmering look of jealousy in his eyes screams insecurity and the need for love.
Of course, it’s also apparent that Jack is not receiving the love he needs from his father. A man of suddenly explosive anger, the boys must always walk on eggshells when in his presence and the tension is always palpable. While a very flawed father, it’s clear that Mr. O’Brien loves his children and is simply a very damaged and flawed man doing what he feels is necessary to prepare his boys for adult life. The moments when he lets his defenses down and shows his love for his sons through a tender touch or loving words are intensely moving. Likewise, the reckless joy that is expressed at one point by the boys upon discovering that their father has left on a business trip, taking advantage of the rare opportunity to run free and uninhibited in their home (joined by an equally liberated mother), is priceless.
The film takes a look at the phases and stages that many boys go through in their maturing process, whether it’s the desire to rebel against parental controls, the various urges to rebel against society and its dictates, the awakening of sexual desire or the propensity towards violence (whether expressed against other boys or against defenseless animals). And along with some of the poor choices that are made comes crushing guilt, especially for a boy raised in a religious environment in which he feels his sin to be not just against another person but against God himself. Having lost his childish faith in a “good God” after seeing one friend drown and having another friend lose his house and nearly his life in a house fire, young Jack begins to question his own impulses to be “good” and begins to lose some of his inhibitions, at one point even praying for his father to die. These behaviors juxtaposed against the memories of his saint-like brother R.L. only magnify his own feelings of guilt, leaving the adult Jack still struggling with the question ofwhy his brother’s life would end so prematurely while his continues on.
I found the film’s final segment, in which adult Jack has a spiritual epiphany involving an “encounter” with his childhood self and family, to be a letdown following the brilliantly captured Waco childhood chapter. Sean Penn is nearly criminally under-utilized in basically a non-speaking role and visually the segment reminded me as much of a bad (and pretentious) 80’s rock video as a Terence Malick film. But that might have been intentional as it’s clear that he’s contrasting the warm pastoral nature of Jack’s childhood experiences against his cold and sterile adult Houston home and office.
While all of the actors in the film turn in sterling performances, the real star of the film might just be the trees, grass, clouds, and all of nature that Malick so beatifully captures. The Tree of Life manages to remind us of the beauty and magic that always surrounds us in nature, something that most of us constantly take for granted. Whether it’s the lingering shots of wind weaving through a tree’s leaves or the butterfly that gracefully floats through the air before momentarily landing on Mrs. O’Brien’s delicately outstretched hand, you will come out of the theater seeing the outdoors in a different and more glorious light.
The Tree of Life is eliciting mixed responses, which is only appropriate for such an ambitious work of art. There are those who feel that the film is nothing more than an ode to Judeo-Christian beliefs masquerading as high art. And there are those who feel that the film is a self-indulgent and bloated testament to the dangers of pretension. And then there are those who just think it’s a boring mess with little to no conventional narrative. Personally, I think the film’s reception at Cannes is telling; receiving applause mixed with a spattering of boos upon first viewing but going on to win the Palme d’Or. I’m writing this review after two screenings and I know I’m still trying to wrap my head around all that the film contains. After the first viewing I considered the film a beautiful mess but after a second viewing that perception changed to a slightly messy beauty. Who knows what I’ll think on my third and fourth viewing but I look forward to finding that out.
Please, watch this film. Take your significant other. Take a friend. Or your brother. Or your mother. I can’t guarantee you’ll like it but I can guarantee it will be a film experience unlike any other you’re likely to find this year or anytime soon.