The literary world has had its share of recluses over the years (J.D. Salinger, Thomas Pynchon, etc), but Hollywood is less well known for attention shy stars (for obvious reasons). Yet, one of the most talented and under-appreciated American directors of the last four decades fits that “recluse” definition to a bill. Since making his first feature, Badlands, in 1973, Terrence Malick has only gone on to release four other features in the intervening forty years. That’s a “one film per every eight years” average for everyone keeping score at home. They’ve all basically been masterpieces so we movie lovers generally forgive Mallick for his sparse production rate because if his perfectionism means we have to wait a decade for another film as good as The Thin Red Line, we’ll be willing to wait. Mallick’s latest film (which is up for Best Picture at this Sunday’s Academy Awards), The Tree of Life, is the culmination of every thing Mallick has attempted to achieve in his decades long career and not only the finest film of his library, but potentially the best movie since 2009’s The Road and this decade’s answer to 2001: A Space Odyssey (except infinitely better). It’s intentionally bare-bones plot may scare away some viewers but for everyone with the patience to sit this film out, The Tree of Life will reward you with one of the most beautiful movie experiences of the last thirty years.
In my first step of unintentionally warding my readers away from this film, the plot of The Tree of Life is undoubtedly the least important part of the film (though still powerful and meditative in its own way). Taking place from the beginning of time to the death of our solar system (though mostly focusing on the 1950’s), The Tree of Life is a non-linear (understatement) story of fathers and sons, “nature versus grace,” growing up, loss, hope, and family. It is Mallick’s intent to paint a portrait of nothing short of the entirety of human existence and the beauty of our small human lives even when they are so microscopic and ultimately meaningless in the cosmic scheme of things. A middle aged man in the 2000’s, Jack O’Brien (Sean Penn), grows weary of the materialistic and greed-driven society he lives in and recalls his childhood growing up in Waco, TX with his father (Brad Pitt) and mother (Jessica Chastain), and the struggle between the stern authority and discipline of his father and the free-spirited love and nurturing from his mother as well as the usual angst of childhood and becoming a man. Along the way, we see the big bang and the beginning of life on Earth (it makes sense in context) as the characters pose existentialist quandaries about our place on this planet.
There is almost no precedent in American cinema for a film like this. It is simply without peers. The only film I can compare it to historically is 2001: A Space Odyssey, but The Tree of Life captures the depth of emotion and human experience that 2001 intentionally chose to ignore and avoid. The Tree of Life remains one of the most polarizing films in years, but for me, it was a transcendent experience and an escape into one of the most beautiful works of art I have ever encountered. Terrence Malick’s name has always been synonymous with cinematic beauty. Whenever a director captures a hauntingly beautiful shot of nature, he is invariably compared to Malick, but The Tree of Life will remind viewers that no one does it better than Malick himself. Most films (and I’m even talking about artsy films with good cinematography) can only hope to get a handful of shots with the same raw power that Malick manages to put out in almost every frame of the film. You would believe that the type of sensory overload that Malick provides you with during this film would result in you eventually becoming numb to any more gorgeous shots of nature or the beginning of the universe; instead, the opposite occurs and the film simply finds new ways to wow you over its nearly two and a half hour running time. If there was one thing even the film’s detractors could agree on, it is that The Tree of Life is a visually stunning experience unlike anything out there.
Yet, all of these gorgeous images would be without value if they weren’t layered with more meaning, and Terrence Malick has crafted a film with so many layers of subtext and allegory that The Tree of Life will likely require multiple viewings (and some refresher courses on Christian theology) to reveal all of its secrets. There is an inherent complexity and artistry not just in the way that Malick bounces his story back and forth through the modern decades and even millennia but the way he grounds all of the visual pretension in a life-affirming message on the paths we take in our lives. So much of the great cinema of the last 40 years has focused on exploring the deepest and darkest recesses of the human experience and shedding light on truths that we never wanted to acknowledge. There are darker elements of The Tree of Life, but at its core, it is a deeply optimistic and almost spiritual film (though there are explicit Christian metaphors, it’s message is universal enough to be appreciated by all faiths or non-believers). With minimal dialogue, Malick lets his images create one of the truest tales of childhood, family, and coming of age that film has ever produced, and thematically, it bears more in common with Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel than any cinematic peers.
The performances in the film can’t be analyzed in a conventional way any more than its loosely defined story. The actors spend very little time on screen actually saying anything, and when they do speak, it’s often in a hushed, barely audible whisper over jaw-dropping images that may very well distract you from what’s being said. Yet, despite the otherworldly beauty of the film, it’s performances contain the same element of every other aspect of the film which makes it stand out, truth. I would never consider Brad Pitt an actor worthy of the term “naturalism.” His style has always been over-the-top and charismatic theatrics. Watching The Tree of Life is like seeing the man for the first time. The hard set line of his jaw, the way he disciplines his son and never stops pushing them but ultimately loves them just a little too much, the unspoken disappointment and regrets in his own life, Brad Pitt televises all of this to the viewer without ever seeming like he’s acting and having very little in the way of dialogue to “tell” more than show, and even more than Moneyball, this is potentially the finest performance of Pitt’s career.
2011 was Jessica Chastain’s break-out year and The Tree of Life may not have had the same sort of scene-stealing energy as her work in The Help (one of the film’s only strengths, along with Viola Davis), it could be argued that her role as the mother was the emotional heart of the film. Young Jack (Hunter McCracken) was the most obvious main character, but Jessica Chastain embodied the love and “nature” that the film declared to be the reason for existence. She had a pixie-ish charm and the film would often linger on her dancing in the sprinklers or playing with her children and Chastain really captured that maternal and natural aspect which was central to the movie. Hunter McCracken was an incredible find to play young Jack and while his performance may not match some of the all-time great child performances, there was once again an almost feral naturalism to his portrayal of youth and rebellion and the dawning of sexuality. Special kudos must be given to the very obvious Oedipal undertones that he layered in with his relationship with his mother, and outside of Stand by Me’s River Phoenix, I can’t remember a young actor who captured the essential nature of childhood better.
American cinema doesn’t often ask the sort of big questions that Terrence Malick poses in The Tree of Life. Even our most bizarre and creative directors (I’m especially thinking of David Lynch), don’t focus on grand treatises on the human condition but instead attempt to deconstruct the very building blocks of film. I love those types of movies, but Terrence Malick manages to make everyone else making movies right now look like amateurs because while he simultaneously ignores the established rules of film-making at every turn, The Tree of Life‘s scope is grander. I’m an avowed empiricist, academic, and agnostic, and while the film’s religious symbolism exists, Malick is often making the point that it is the way that we cope with ideas that are too big for us to understand (hence the “dawn of time” sequence). More time in the film is spent meditating and quietly wrestling with the nature of our potentially meaningless lives than in giving actual, direct answers, but that works because Malick’s simple quiet tale of childhood and family permits an impressionistic slate for the audience to create their own philosophical framework around Malick’s haunting images.
This film’s audience is pretty split between those who think it’s one of the greatest films of the decade and those who think it’s overly pretentious garbage. You know where my feelings lie, but be warned if you watch this film based on my recommendation, that you are signing up for a challenging but oh so rewarding trip through philosophy, intentionally oblique symbolism, and the simple reality of life. When so much of the great cinema is being made by foreign hands, there is almost nothing as rewarding as finding an American director saying “We’ve still got it.” The Tree of Life may not be for everyone, but if you’re looking for a truly unparalleled visual and emotional experience, you need look no further and when you’re done, you can join me in praying to the movie gods that Terrence Malick doesn’t wait another 8 years to make his next film. But if he does and it’s as good as The Tree of Life, the wait will be worth it.
Final Score: A+