From Terrence Malick, the acclaimed director of such classic films as Badlands
, Days of Heaven
and The Thin Red Line
, THE TREE OF LIFE is the impressionistic story of a Midwestern family in the 1950's. The film follows the life journey of the eldest son, Jack, through the innocence of childhood to his disillusioned adult years as he tries to reconcile a complicated relationship with his father (Brad Pitt). Jack (played as an adult by Sean Penn) finds himself a lost soul in the modern world, seeking answers to the origins and meaning of life while questioning the existence of faith. Through Malick's signature imagery, we see how both brute nature and spiritual grace shape not only our lives as individuals and families, but all life.
"Is there some fraud in the scheme of the universe? Is nothing deathless?"
These words, spoken in narration by Jack O'Brien (played as an adult by Sean Penn), serve as the impetus for Terrence Malick's newest picture, The Tree of Life
. Malick is a singular filmmaker in America, having a poetic and languorous quality representative of his preoccupations with philosophy, religion, nostalgia and the beauty and fury in Nature. The Tree of Life
, only Malick's fifth movie in forty years, is the story of Jack, a middle-aged man reminiscing on his childhood growing up with his mother (Jessica Chastain), father (Brad Pitt) and two brothers in 1950s Texas. As with all Malick films, the film's construction is abstract and non-linear, gliding between scenes of Penn, living and working as an architect in a monolithic big city, and young Jack's (played by non-actor Hunter McCracken) childhood roaming the wide open spaces of his tree-lined, suburban haven. In these scenes, we learn that although their home his very beautiful, the O'Briens have their share of pain, dealing with the loss of a child and the increasing frustrations of their tightly-wound patriarch.
Malick conveys the tension between Jack's youth and middle-age with visual acuity. In Jack's memories, the O'Brien's spacious yard is a playground of childhood pleasures. Tracking the O'Brien boys from infancy to puberty, Malick and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (in some of his best work) elegantly convey the wonders of childhood, where every day yields exciting new discoveries and every rock and blade of grass offers a new sensory experience. Lubezki's fluid handheld camera plunges the viewer in headlong into Jack's memories with a tactile depth that exudes the rawness and urgent immediacy of childhood.
The duality of Nature and Grace, the tension between Jack's reality and his memories, is summed up in a defining image early in the film: a flock of black birds dip and dive between two steel gray skyscrapers, an image that appears to have been captured on the fly, a simple moment succinctly delineating the way nature abuts against progress.
Amid Jack's memories are more abstract images that compare the O'Brien's lives and experiences with the creation of life itself. At times, The Tree of Life
plays like a combination of 2001: A Space Odyssey
and an IMAX nature documentary. This stunning sequence divides the film in two halves and charts the progression of life from the miasmatic depth of outer space to the volcanic explosions of pre-life Earth to a vignette of dinosaurs roaming the planet. The sequence itself is incredible, drawing visual comparisons between the embryonic creation of life to human cell division, the earth's own prehistoric labor pains to those of Mrs. O'Brien. It could easily be lifted from the story and screened for school children as the most artful interpretation of evolution, ever. The Tree of Life
's uniquely egalitarian treatment of all life as notable and beautiful provides us probably the only film in which Brad Pitt deserves co-billing with a dinosaur.
The only downside to The Tree of Life
is the high standard of elegiac beauty already set by every previous Terrence Malick film. Here is a director whose interests and obsessions are readily apparent in each film and for whom, over the last forty years, their expression has become increasingly unmoored from the constraints of narrative linearity, continuous editing or traditional storytelling techniques. The Tree of Life
is in some ways Malick's most abstract and impressionistic work but at the same time is markedly familiar to anyone with a passing knowledge of his other films. The same images (of trees, grass, hair, water), the same introspective voice over narration, the fixation on childhood and violence, are all well-worn hallmarks of a Terrence Malick film. The Tree of Life
may be a masterpiece (certainly the ambition of its scope and elegance of its construction achieve transcendency), but there is also a lingering feeling that we've seen this before. It's an intensely personal film, but I don't know if The Tree of Life
represents a filmmaker's artistic growth more than it does the reopening of ancient wounds.
The Tree of Life
is perhaps most noteworthy for its integration of visual effects in an intimate family drama. Terrence Malick is not a filmmaker who usually has much use for computer graphics or special photographic effects, but the ambitious scope of the picture required a new approach. Employing Douglas Trumbull, the artist responsible for creating the stunning visual effects in Stanley Kubrickâs 2001: A Space Odyssey
, the filmmakers crafted a VFX scheme that combines computer-generated graphics with live footage. The resulting image is seamless. The scenes on a prehistoric earth are stunningly beautiful and immersive tableaus that actually do convey a world where humans won't exist for millennia (and we don't miss them).
The most buzz-worthy sequence in the filmâthe recreation of life from the depths of space through the volcanic creation of life on earthâis an absolutely breathtaking forty minutes right smack in the middle of the story. The images of intergalactic star clusters were created organically, experimenting with paints and dyes, photographed in varying speeds. The result is something like the most beautiful screensaver ever seen: abstract, geometric shapes in kaleidoscopic colors suspended in black space. Comparisons to 2001
are not exaggerated. Like Kubrick's film, the scenes in space (accompanied, like that film, with lush classical orchestrations) serve to break up the narrative and are both integral to the storytelling and in and of themselves, spectacular visual treats: art for art's sake. This sequence, abstract and hallucinatory, is exactly the sensory overload that reinforces Malick's thesis: life, in all its painful mysteries, is worth living.
As the O'Brien patriarch, Brad Pitt turns in something of a miracle performance. O'Brien does monstrous things while raising his boys, but the man himself is never a monster. In his best roles like The Assassination of Jesse James
, Pitt is able to tap into the inherent power he has as a world-renowned movie star. As the father of boys who idolize and fear him in equal measure, Pitt conveys a quiet intimidation; even before Mr. O'Brien explodes in violence (verbal and physical), the audience is flinching in anticipation of the event. On the flip side, O'Brien is a man of refinements and high morals; he plays the piano and delights in educating his boys in classical music. Malick uses O'Brien to paint a terrible but ultimately sympathetic portrait of the failure of post-war masculinity. Pitt's character fought in WWII and has steadfast beliefs in the all-American values of hard work, good deeds, religion, education, and family--and those beliefs fail him. O'Brien is a man who is always trying to be strong and, being only human and oh-so fallible, constantly falls short.
O'Brien's wife, played by Jessica Chastain, represents Grace to Pitt's brutal Nature. Chastain has a luminous quality, epitomizing the warmth and acceptance of motherhood. Chastain conveys a wealth of emotion with little dialogue and Malick captures her interactions with her three sons (all played by untrained actors) in captivating close-ups; Chastain's rather remarkable face, unadorned by makeup and apparently lit from within by affection for her children, seems a beatific manifestation of Mother Nature.