Terrence Malick's THE TREE OF LIFE
The release of Terrence Malick’s latest film, THE TREE OF LIFE, has been accompanied by so many years of secrecy and anticipation that as both a critic and a Malick devotee it feels somewhere sacrilegious not to give into wholehearted praise and adoration. While THE TREE OF LIFE is nothing short of masterful, it is by no means a perfect film. New Yorker film critic Anthony Lane puts it well: “…no less perilous, however, is our assumption that merely because a movie…was pondered and kept secret for a lengthy period it must tower above its more precipitate peers.”
Like Malick’s previous work, THE TREE OF LIFE is set in the past, in 1950s small town Texas. There are a few jarring flash-forwards to the present day, where a downcast Sean Penn is at work in a sleek, steel and glass skyscraper, a stark contrast from the warm, honey-golden tones the scenes from his childhood home are shot in. We see him wake up on what can only be the anniversary of the death of his younger brother R.L., who died when he was 19-years-old. We see their mother (Jessica Chastain) and father (Brad Pitt) on the day they receive the Western Union telegram bearing the unfortunate news. This one of few concrete details Malick gives us. Most things – names, dates, the father’s job – are considered extraneous information. I can’t even refer to the mother and father by their first names because Malick didn’t give them any.
Is creating a nameless family his way of indicating that their dilemma – grief over the loss of their son – is universal, that it can and does happen not just in Texas but to all kinds of people in places all over the world? The scope of the film is so expansive that this seems like a distinct possibility. In order to deal with their grief and make their way through darkness to the light on the other side, Malick takes us back not just to the origins of this particular family but to the origins of life – period. This is Malick’s universal tree of life, after all, not one individual family’s tree.
And when I say we travel back to the origins of life, I’m talking pre-Big Bang. Malick takes us on one helluva flashback from the creation of the universe and life on our planet, beginning with single-celled organisms and moving onto plants, pre-Cambrian fish and eventually dinosaurs. This sequence is as long as it is beautiful, told as a visual collage – a motif that continues throughout the rest of the film. Even when we get back to the family in Texas (marked by a breathtaking transition in which one of the young sons swims out the door of his underwater bedroom), scenes of motherly love and the endless devotion of her child rearing are told in a long string of moments: the mother playing with one of her young sons (there are three in all) on the lawn, the two of them rolling in the grass, eyeing each other through the blades. Then it’s a similar scene on the lawn but there’s a newborn baby added to the mix. Then she’s kissing all three goodnight and waking them up in the morning. In this way we pass time until they’re old enough for their father to take over and make his patriarchal mark.
Where the boys see their mother as angelic, a princess in a fairytale (at one point we see her lying outside in Snow White’s glass coffin), their father is more complicated. In fact, it’s one of the most interesting, finely wrought character studies I’ve seen. Pitt is stern and straight-backed and does a lot of acting with his lower lip, which he keeps jutted out as if always absorbed in heavy contemplation. We never see him smile. He demands that his sons call him sir and follow his endless set of rules: don’t put your elbows on the table, don’t clip the grass too short, don’t slam the door, don’t run, don’t play, etc. When he’s disobeyed there’s hell to pay. He yells, slams around furniture as well as his sons, throwing them into locked closets and dark bedrooms. Yet at the same time he wants their affection. He hugs them and asks for kisses, leaving his sons in an understandable state of fear and confusion.
If there is, indeed, a story line in THE TREE OF LIFE, this is it, though you’d be hard-pressed to draw it out on paper. It’s both linear and cyclical, connecting the present and future to the world as it was 5 billion years ago. Everything is in constant motion and life happens both fast and slow. Childhood can seem to go on endlessly and then one day it’s suddenly over and you’re an adult. In a film that tries to encompass literally everything about life, it’s beauty and its pain, THE TREE OF LIFE is at once epic and unsatisfying, simply because when you try to paint the whole picture you inevitably leave something out (you can’t even properly discuss the film in one single review, it’s so huge). What it does succeed at with its abundance of visual stimulation and its grapplings with God, birth, love and death is instilling in the viewer an almost orgiastic sense of wonder that will remain deeply rooted within them.