Saturday, June 4, 2011

The Tree of Life – Looking Through the Eyes of the Almighty

To watch The Tree of Life is to look through the eyes of god. For a being like that, time would have no meaning and even less value. To see the beginning of the universe would be of no more difficulty than to look at the life of one person or onward to the end of days. The truth of what people are feeling and thinking would become apparent, even as they express the opposite. To describe the narrative, I cannot get around the fact that the film is much more like a poem than a story. Poems use language to try to burrow inside of an emotional reality. This is not the same as the way things actually “are.” In the world you and I live in, people can’t fly, the Light Brigade is long dead, and we don’t have the chance to talk with people who have died. But in a poem, you can say anything that you need to say, and you can do it in any way that you want to.

Terrence Malick is clearly very, very sincere. This is a personal film above all else, and I mean that as a compliment. It takes courage to put one's deepest emotions out for all to see as explicitly as Malick has done. Normally, when discussions begin of cinematic bravery, they relate to an artist’s commitment to tackling material that’s widely thought of as difficult. I wonder, however, if there is any material more difficult than the honest exploration of what one truly thinks and feels about the nature of love, life, death, spirituality, and the universe itself. These are the deepest things that a person can hold within. It is so easy to laugh and poke fun at someone when he/she is being sincere, and the vulnerability with which Malick has opened himself is something that has my deepest admiration.

The Tree of Life tells the story of the lives of the O’Brien family in Waco, Texas in the 1950’s, that most misunderstood of modern American decades. Mr. & Mrs. O’Brien (Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain) have three boys and very different ideas about how to raise them. Mr. O’Brien clearly loves his family, but has no idea how to properly express it as a husband and father. He’s never done this before, and it’s heartbreakingly obvious. There are a number of times where he’s shown playing with his sons, but I think they’re already so resentful and/or scared of him that it’s too little, too late. At the same time, he’s undoubtedly a passionate person. He truly wants his children to learn the things that he felt he never did or learned too late, and his love of music is the most tangible of any of his expressions of love. While Mrs. O’Brien loves her children and is clearly their emotional center, I think they resent the fact that she lets her husband do what he wants without standing up for them. There’s only so much a person can stand of being told how much he/she is loved to his/her face without it being proved when it matters most.

While the family has five members, the narrative revolves mostly around Jack (Hunter McCracken/Sean Penn), the oldest son. His transformation is something that resonated with me. I can clearly remember the day that my internal life changed forever. Overnight, I went from being a carefree kid to an adolescent dealing with thoughts and emotions much too complicated for him. Like Jack, there was nothing I wanted more than to get back to where I’d been before, to somehow find a way to navigate myself back to the space I’d occupied where the only thing I had to worry about was whether or not I’d like what was being served for dinner. I was so desperate then. What no child ever realizes at first is that one cannot go back. There is no way to unlearn, barring illness or senility, what it is to be an adult and to have to deal with things heretofore relegated to the “grown up” and “mature.”
The Tree of Life is a study in mirrors, types, and shadows. At the outset, the family learns that their middle son is dead. It’s a devastating moment in their lives, both individually and collectively, and I don’t think it’s one that they ever fully recover from. From there, the film moves into dazzlingly abstract territory to the formation of the universe. It’s beautiful to look at, and I’ve never seen VFX used in quite this way before. Some shots are so beautiful as to appear to be footage taken by the likes of the Hubble Telescope. After the creation of the earth, the long-awaited (and til this point rumored) dinosaurs emerge. Yes, you heard right. Dinosaurs. It’s all right. Go with it. Then, the meteor strikes, and life on earth is irrevocably changed. After that, things shift to the formation of the family. We see the birth of the children, and we get a sense of the rhythm of their daily lives. The only difference is that we already know what their meteor will be. We know exactly what will change their lives forever.

So much of the film is a conversation with god. Even as Jack is saying his nightly prayers, with the obligatory “make me a good boy” and so on, we hear his heart. “Where are you? Do you see me?” One of the most significant bits for me occurred when he says “I’m not going to try and be good. You aren’t.” As the universe is being born, we hear Mrs. O’Brien asking god why it has allowed evil to befall those who try to be righteous. That most ancient of questions. A preoccupation of some of the surviving members of the family is speaking with their deceased son/brother, and there’s an interesting malleability of names and subjects at work here. At times, it’s unclear if who’s being addressed is the dead boy or god itself.

The way that Terrence Malick and his cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki, have shot the film is dazzling, even virtuosic. The camera (and, by extension, the film’s rhythm at times) is so fluid as to seem to be alive. It flies, swoops and swirls like a force of nature all its own. There are a half-dozen directors I’d like to make study Malick’s work here to learn how to create a sense of motion without cutting every 2 seconds. There are some gorgeous shots that make better use of a crane than just about anyone I’ve seen. The camera glides down hallways, often turning to look at the scenery with a mind all its own. But motion, endless motion, is what Malick seems to be striving for here.

It didn’t strike me until a little bit after the film was over, but the “dramatic” climax of the film occurs so early in the film as to sneak right past the viewer. It’s a few words spoken over the phone in an elevator that become a brief moment of connection in an attempt to rectify the past. It’s a rare moment of near-irony in a piece that exists almost completely in the absence of insincerity.

In The Tree of Life, fantasy and reality collide, the past, present, and future are interchangeable, and the inner lives of a few common people are expanded in bright, bold relief. Ultimately, Terrence Malick is using the lives of one family in Waco, Texas as a microcosm of the life and death of the universe itself. I know that it sounds incredibly pretentious to put it like that, but it’s true. People are born and they die, often for no discernable reason. What’s left is for the living to go on, treasuring the memories they have, picking up the pieces that are left, and making the most of every precious fragment that remains.

One of 2011's best films.

4 1/2 stars (out of 5)


Adam Zanzie said...

Good review, Adam. It's given me a lot to think about when I go to see the movie a second time later this upcoming week. Coming home last night, I knew I had seen a marvelous film, but the task of putting my appreciation of it into words still sounds so... daunting, you know?

Interesting point about how Penn's apology to his dad over the phone in the earlier scene might have been the film's climax. I'm curious what he's actually apologizing over. Maybe Malick doesn't want us to know.

The finale on the beach at the end... was that supposed to be heaven? The fact that Penn sees his two brothers only as young boys makes me wonder if both of his brothers died during his childhood (it's never explained what happened to the other brother). These questions of mine are probably superfluous, though... as you've said, the heaven sequence is probably just there because it's a "metetor" to the O'Brien family, and to the rest of the world.

Adam said...

Thanks. I understand what you're saying about how hard it can be to start thinking about the film. How does one encompass a film that attempts to be "about" everything??? You just give it your best shot, hope for the best, and preferably don't end up sounding like a moron or, worse, a self-important moron.

I recall hearing Jack apologize to his father about something he'd accused him of, i.e. "I'm sorry that I said what I did. I know you loved him as much as I did. I think about him every day . . ." Something along those lines.

Initially, I thought that beach sequence was taking place in Jack's mind, but other critics have suggested that it's meant to represent the afterlife. Like you, however, I wondered at the ages that he saw them represented at. Perhaps it was meant to be indicative of the way that the mind can take and freeze mental "snapshots" of various things. It could be that he and his brother grew apart, and that time was the bit that he carried closest to his heart.

As for the meteor theory, I don't think that the heaven sequence is meant to be their version of the meteor so much as the son's death is.

This sounds terribly esoteric, but I am so grateful that Malick is swinging for the fences. We live in a time of so much homogenized cinema that something like this is truly special.

About the author said...

What you say is very intelligent and not at all pretentious. I like the way you liken the film to poetry rather than narrative.

I see the entire film as one long montage. And I think rather than a limited omnitient narrator, that being the camera, which follows one or two characters, the story is told from several points of view: the dead son's spirit (the mysterious light), the mother, the father, Jack, and God.