How are we to watch this film? Where were we before the theatre darkened? Did you know it would be like this? Terence Malick’s The Tree of Life is so over the top, so grandiose, so keen, stretched and expansive that if I didn’t absolutely love it I would hate it. Or sleep through it, as my companion did.
Origin of the universe? Got it. Dinosaurs at play? You betcha. Bullying father with a 1950s brush cut? Of course. The ice age? Modern skyscrapers? Heavenly afterlife? Sibling rivalry? Yes! The only other artists I can think of with such a range are the authors of the books of Genesis and Revelations.
And like those chroniclers, Malick is sincerely concerned with our place in the universe and our relationship with a higher power. The film opens with a female voice (Mrs O’Brian/Mother) musing about Grace and Nature. “The nuns taught us there were two ways through life – the way of nature and the way of grace. You have to choose which one you’ll follow.”
The core of the film is inhabited by a 1950s suburban family. Brad Pitt, as the bullying Father, and Jessica Chastain as a rather idealized Mother, are the emotional centres around which their three young sons orbit. Jack, played as an adult by Sean Penn, is the child most victimized by his father. His struggles with his own nature, and with finding grace, are exquisitely portrayed.
The dramatic narrative section of the film takes about an hour – easily vying with some of the best films I’ve seen. Ever. I am not sure if Malick, along with everything else, is given enough credit for his work with actors. The delicacy with which Pitt, Chastain, Hunter McCracken (Jack) and Laramie Eppler (second son, RL) play out their struggles is fierce and resonating. There are no gestures, words, or camera angles wasted.
Malick’s distinctive use of stream-of-consciousness voice-overs goes back to his first film Badlands. While it kind of gummed up the works of The New World, it brought a deeper resonance to his depiction of migrant workers and war, respectively, in Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line.
The voices in The Tree of Life belong, at various times, to each of the main characters. While they do not add to our understanding of the story – which, admittedly, is opaque – they echo familiar Malickian concerns: “I will be true to you. Whatever comes.” “How do I get back to where they are?” “I didn’t know how to name You then.” The whispers seem to be a reminder that life exists above, behind and beyond the merely visible.
To underscore that point – Malick’s driving operandi since his first film – the film is stretched out to include the origin of the universe, the reign of the dinosaurs, and visions of the afterlife – and the final bestowing of grace. Shot using classic FX techniques as opposed to CGI, Malick collaborated with Douglas Trumbull, who had helped Kubrick design and imagine 2001: A Space Odyssey. Trumbull retired in 1983, but returned to work with Malick.
The (long!) coda at the end of The Tree of Life required a fair bit of suspension of this reviewer’s critical faculties. Sean Penn on his knees on a beach where his entire – otherwise dead and departed – family and a few angels frolic is a bit much.
But it also put me in mind of the early months after 9/11 where, in the wake of the tragedy, more than one person declared “the end of irony.” Big real life had trumped facile irony and cynicism.
Maybe that’s what Malick is demanding: that we suspend urbane criticism and sophistication and let life in all its enormity wash over us. Whether or not all the parts of the film cohere or even make cogent sense is irrelevant in the face of such ambition. Worked for me. My companion, however, exacted a few drinks to make up for all the mud, volcanoes, and velociraptors.