What is life? Life as we know it has existed for approximately three and a half billion years on earth. This is an immense span of time that none of us can comprehend; however, Terrence Malick has come closer than anyone before him ever has. Somehow the famously reclusive director has managed to visualize and film in a matter of two hours the very mysterious force that is life. The Tree of Life is a beautiful, lyrical, and haunting Ode to Creation and an Opera for the Organisms. In the realm of art films I have rarely seen one so hopeful and ambitious about its undertaking. The film seeks to explain to us, through metaphors and sensations, the reason why we exist. It explores evolution and the cosmos. It attempts to glimpse the mind of God in a camera lens and simulates just about every emotion possible with clear and striking images. It seems like a very complex and vivid dream that although random and bizarre at times, symbolizes something much bigger and much more profound.
Essentially, there are three vignettes (maybe “motifs” is a better word) to the film’s fragile plotlessness (notice I didn’t say stories, because there is virtually no story, just flashes and wisps of whole scenes strung together to create a metaphor). The first vignette and the one that takes up the most time centers around the O’Brien family, a middle class clan from Texas. This section is set in the 1950s. Brad Pitt is the disciplinarian head of the family whose unwavering toughness and “be thankful, son” attitude causes some conflicts with his eldest son Jack. Jessica Chastain plays Mrs. O’Brien, and she has an otherworldly, distant, yet carefree and playful quality about her that makes her much more open to affection than her husband. Through this first channel we see the birth of their three sons, the disaffection of Jack, and his ultimate defiance in his early teens. This section of the film feels like the half-memories of an old man looking back on his life. The family is a churchgoing, Christian family (either Catholic or Presbyterian), and many references are made to God. At one point they go to a funeral, and much time is spent dwelling on the gorgeous stained glass window icons. At one point, Mrs. O’Brien says a prayer for one of her sons, and then the second phase of the film begins.
“The stars, the moon, they have all been blown out, you’ve left me in the dark. / No dawn, no day, I’m always in this twilight / In the shadow of your heart.”
—Florence Welch, “Cosmic Love”
This next motif is perhaps the most bizarre, yet the most beautiful. It is a vast, breathtaking montage of stars and nature and the symbiosis of animals now and from the past. Through this dreamlike cytoplasm of celluloid we witness the constant motion of the heaven in big glorious images of space and planets. We witness the very beginning and mitosis of life. We travel through the sea and over deserts, past rivers and over clouds. We experience virtually millions of years of change and evolution in approximately fifteen minutes. I thought I’d been amazed enough when all of a sudden (what else?!): dinosaurs appear. Yes, there are dinosaurs in this film. The struggle of life is played out on the cosmic scale by cretaceous hadrosaurs seeking wellness for one of their own. All of this is underscored by Alexandre Desplat’s chillingly symphonic classical score and by the soft, poetic prayer of Mrs. O’Brien for her son. In some way this universal montage mimics the Old Testament book of Job, a quote from which the film begins with. “Where wast thou when I laid up the foundations of the earth? tell me if thou hast understanding” – Job 38:4. It is the beginning of God’s long soliloquy in answer to Job’s question, “Why me?”, Job of course being the righteous man who endures the greatest pain and suffering. It is God challenging Job, as if saying, “I made all of this creation, do you know my purposes?” In the same way, as Mrs. O’Brien cries to her God, we are transported through time and space, to places so vast it is hard for us to grasp. It is as if Malick is repeating God’s challenge to Job to Mrs. O’Brien, “Do you know God’s purposes? Were you there when the universe was formed?” It’s a brilliant meshing of science and religion. I could be wrong: I’m just spit-balling ideas out there.
Throughout this creation saga I kept thinking of the ever-famous 2001: A Space Odyssey; a film that I absolutely do not get. Though they are very similarly structured films, The Tree of Life has one thing going for it that 2001 simply does not: it’s NOT boring. Somehow Malick has managed to film the cosmos in a way that grabs interest, whereas Kubrick settled to melt my mind. 2001 attempted to, but The Tree of Life really succeeds at capturing all of time, space, and matter in a few slow, massive, color-filled shots. As I watched this saga of everything unfold, I found myself losing perception of time and becoming enraptured in the methodic pace of the space montage. It reminds me of a scene in The Lord of the Rings in which a character describes oblivion as “the stars wheeled overhead, and each day was as long as a life-age of the earth.” I think that accurately describes the viewer’s sense of place during this rotisserie of creation. If one were to see the infinite mind of God on a movie screen, one would find it here. The images of the stars and celestial bodies are inspirational and enchanting. It’s a mood-altering experience, asking us to leave behind our temporal worries and concerns of individuality and focus on the eternal creation and its creator.
“Nostradamus said, ‘I predict / ‘That the world will end at half-past six.’ / What he didn’t say was exactly when.”
—Elton John, “Tinderbox”
The third stanza of the picture focuses on an adult Jack (now played by Sean Penn in a virtually silent role) reflecting on his childhood and looking forward into what could be the afterlife. Here the tree metaphor is used the most and as Jack finds himself on the shores of the sea, surrounded by everyone he ever knew, a tree grows beside him. A young tree, perhaps signifying rebirth in eternity. This last portion of the movie feels like a tired Saturday afternoon with the sun shining brightly down on everything. Here the film’s opening thesis that “there are two ways through life: the way of nature and the way of grace” is fleshed out as Jack begins to consider whether his life has been good or not. Maybe he’ll never find an answer, at least not in the concrete sense that we as an audience want an answer. However, this whole movie is pretty abstract, so why not the characters’ feelings? In the afterlife segment some of the film’s recurring mysteries are tied up and others are seemingly left open (although upon multiple viewings this may change). As the film ends I was left feeling like I’d been submerged in the labyrinth of the film’s complexity for an indefinite amount of time: perhaps as if I’d glimpsed eternity.
I have the utmost admiration for this motion picture. It’s defiantly slow-paced, yet not the slightest bit boring. In an age where the public’s attention span has been hopelessly chiseled away at by big explosions and mindless entertainment, Malick dares to insert three to five minute shots of single images. He experiments with sound, contrasting silence and volume beautifully, and the color timing is exquisite. Many people will not understand this movie in the slightest and many will dismiss it out of hand as art festival fodder. I must admit, many of the images and similes went over my head, and it will probably require multiple viewings to even remotely understand its elusive message. The Tree of Life is one of the best avant-garde films I’ve ever seen. It’s poetic and bizarre without being incoherent, and the cinematography far surpasses even the most expensive Hollywood productions. Camera placement and shot length are so perfectly controlled they seem as precise as a Hitchcock film. Not one frame of film is in this picture that wasn’t intentionally put there by the filmmakers. Many movies are sloppily edited and the directors are willing to give or take a few frames on every shot. Not so here: it is obvious that the editors have spent months deciding exactly when to cut a shot.
“There is nothing new under the sun . . .” Solomon’s Book of Ecclesiastes
Of course, it’s not hard to spot the spring from which the film drew many of its ideas. Among its many influences are films such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, Black Narcissus, and Vertigo. It draws heavily from religious symbolism and the Biblical Book of Job, about a man who although righteous with God, undergoes the most painful of sufferings. Many critics have noted similarities (as have I) between this movie and 2001. True, they share similar themes, but this is an infinitely more impressive and thoughtful film than the nonsense that made up 2001. The film also seems related somehow to the great works of Michael Powell and Emmeric Pressburger, whose films such as Black Narcissus, A Matter of Life and Death, and The Red Shoes walked a fine line between mainstream and artsy. Despite being a collection of parts, The Tree of Life is truly original in its approach to the material. Anyone can point a camera at something, but it takes talent to make it meaningful. I was in awe of this motion picture from beginning to end. I’ve never quite seen anything like it before. It spoke to the deepest part of me and left me in a very different mood all day.
Like any great movie, it is entertaining, but it’s worth so much more than entertainment value. In an unintelligent world, The Tree of Life forces its audience to think deeply and decipher its many metaphors. It is visual, and small in its use of dialogue. Moving at a slow, almost snail’s pace the film weaves a complex and stunning portrait of life in the past, in the now, and in the future. Sometimes it deals with very hopeless topics, yet it’s hard to imagine a film more filled with hope than this fine specimen. I was speechless by the end of this movie. It is thrilling and epic, an absolute triumph of modern cinema. Finally, in a world that worships the culture of death, we can stand up and celebrate life . . .
Summit Entertainment presents a River Road production
Cast: Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain, Sean Penn, Hunter McCracken, Laramie Eppler, Tye Sheridan, Fiona Shaw. Directed by Terrence Malick.
Rated PG-13 for some thematic material. Release Date: 27 May 2011