The Greek word “theatron”—from which we get our word “theater”—literally means “seeing place,” and that elemental meaning gets to the heart of director Terrence Malick’s cinematic work. He wants to see so much: people and through people to their souls, the world and through the world to the ineffable, life and death and through them to their meaning. And with films like The Tree of Life, Malick's Fifth, he wants to help us to see it all too.
Bursting with imagery and ideas, Terrence Malick’s deeply meditative The Tree of Life does not fit into the Hollywood box, apart from the concession of leading man Brad Pitt. If it is not, as MGM advertised Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, “the ultimate trip,” Malick’s film comes tantalizingly close to transportive rapturousness, and it seems a bit churlish to split hairs. Let us say the trailers for the film are not a tease: expect a museum-quality two-and-a-half-hour wash of sight and sound, from primordial ooze to subverted Rockwellian Americana, from whispered narration to ethereal choirs.
So what is the film “about”? Do you have a few hours? As screenwriter, Malick pretty much throws out narrative convention, keeping his film close to free-form A lot of it is in the montage: credit where it’s due to the five editors piecing together cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s ravishing pictures (supplemented a bit by Ellen Kuras and Benoit Delhomme, as well as visual consultant Douglas Trumbull). Ostensibly, it’s the story of the O’Brien family: Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien (Pitt and Jessica Chastain) and sons Jack (Hunter McCracken), R.L. (Laramie Eppler), and Steve (Tye Sheridan). Mostly, we see them during the boys’ Oedipal adolescence, but we learn almost immediately that one died when he was nineteen, and we see the grown, disllusioned Jack (Sean Penn) contemplating that death, his childhood, his relationships with his parents and with God, and the universe itself—his trip from a numb, greed-centric present back into complicated memory and existential imagination becomes our trip.
One of Jesuit founder St. Ignatius of Loyola’s best-known teachings is to “find God in all things,” which is the searching imperative that drives Malick here. The film’s title not only evokes Malick’s favorite visual subject (the trees, always the trees) but the notion of the family tree of life, that all living things are interconnected. “Life by life, I search for you,” Mrs. O’Brien says of her dead but not gone creation, and the film’s cycle of creation and destruction locates a certain order to contrast with the chaos of random tragedy. Malick shows us the very beginnings of life on Earth, the ruthless cruelty of nature, and the planetary reset of an asteroid, and we see the same pattern in Jack’s life as an Everyman born into 1950s small-town Texas and destined to die (not for nothing, Malick spent his boyhood in Waco).
The parts here often have a greater impact than the whole: this is a film full of precious gems, better when it suggests than when it spells out. The beach-set finale (spoiler alert?)—with its Mitch Albom-meets-Bruce Joel Rubin gathering of Jack, his family, and his inner child—made me wish Malick had quit while he was ahead, but I love the way Malick weaves in a thread about the absurdity of borders (a thread that dovetails nicely with his absurdity-of-war film The Thin Red Line). Mr. O'Brien tries to convince his young son of the presence of an invisible fence line separating the O'Briens from their neighbors; cut to Mrs. O'Brien reading a passage from Beatrix Potter's The Tale of Peter Rabbit, about transgressing into Mr. McGregor's garden. The idea of borders also resonates with the illusion of possession, from a child's discovery of "It's mine!" to Mr. O'Brien's pride in his twenty-seven patents, which he celebrates as the "ownership of ideas." (Among the other winners: a pithy piquant short-film-within-a-film about the guilty discovery of sexuality, and a tartly ironic image of neighborhood boys running, as if it were ice-cream day, behind a DDT-spraying truck.)
“The way of nature and the way of grace. We have to choose which one to follow,” says Mrs. O’Brien. While the often abusive father says grace, the mother lives it, and the sons split the difference, with innocence and trust wrestling with experience and boyish, reckless insouciance. The family walks on eggshells around the father, but his archetypal mid-twentieth century toughness and stoicism do not exclude the desire for love, the expression of which he awkwardly demands from his sons. And if father doesn't exactly know best, any filmmaker must see the truth of much of Mr. O'Brien's terrible wisdom: "It takes fierce will to get ahead in this world" and "If you want to succeed, you can't be too good" (like the dinosaur we see stepping on the neck of another that's dying).
Is this voice of the father the voice of "the Father"? The film is full of questions directed skyward, "where God lives," and they often carry an accusatory tone ("Are you watching me?" "Why should I be good if you aren't?" "Lord, why? Where were you?"). Or is God's voice heard as that of the dead boy, who responds, "Find me" to the adult Jack's somewhat ambiguous question "How did I lose you?" The film's spiritual search begins with a quotation from Job (which also begins with the words "Where were you...?", there directed from God to man), but the search ends with the holy mother's words "The only way to be happy is to love."
After all the guilty sins of boyhood and murmured private confessions, Malick allows his characters (Jack, at minimum) to make peace with life and death; it is no stretch of the imagination to see Malick's own confessions and peace-making made manifest in his own act of creation. Alfred Hitchcock said that “In feature films the director is God,” and though much of the film emerges from Jack's low-angled boy's-eye view, the filmmaker’s all-seeing, all-hearing, all-knowing POV shares in God’s omniscience even as it seeks to understand God’s mystery ("I want to know what you are. I want to see what you see").
Newly severe in his close-cropped hair and horn-rimmed bifocals, Pitt suddenly seems all right angles. He convincingly carries his weight, though it's the children who are the stars, particularly Eppler (as the tender-hearted boy with a striking resemblance to his dad) and McCracken, who beautifully plays a full palette of emotions: joy, jealousy, sexual confusion, coiled rage, existential fear. Chastain nicely handles her task of embodying maternal love in all its expressions, and Penn broods well enough. The great production designer Jack Fisk contributes enormously, and composer Alexandre Desplat gets big assists, in setting the mood, from Bach, Berlioz, Brahms, Górecki, Holst, Mahler, Mussorgsky, Smetena, Tavener, et al.
Though the film's floaty imagery can stray into what looks like an ad for Terrence Malick’s Obsession for Men and at times the universal drifts into the trite, The Tree of Life is built to last as a productive reminder of the folly of our tiny, tiny perspective, and a sincere plea for mankind’s salvation, before or after our inevitable terminal events.
[A version of this review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]
Fox delivers what may well be the hi-def disc of the year with its Blu-ray + DVD + Digital Copy edition of The Tree of Life. Cineastes would not settle for anything less than perfect from the A/V, and Fox delivers with a perfect—and therefore regularly astonishing—image, and a highly sensitive lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 surround mix to match. Color is lively and rich, black level deep, contrast spot-on, and detail outstanding, the picture retaining its natural film grain without any digital disturbance. Playback of the film launches with an instruction to raise the volume of your system, a prelude to a highly impressive sonic experience. The mix presents music, sound effects, and whispery voice over with fullness and precision for an expert immersion of the listener into the soundscape.
Given the disinterest of director Terrence Malick in making any kind of appearance, the bonus features here are suprisingly substantive. "Exploring The Tree of Life" (29:56, HD)—produced by Laurent Bouzereau—primarily mixes film clips with interview clips of producer Grant Hill, Christopher Nolan, David Fincher, producer Bill Pohlad, Brad Pitt, producer Dede Gardner, producer Sarah Green, visual effects consultant Douglas Trumbull, Jessica Chastain, producer Nicolas Gonda, production designer Jack Fisk, costume designer Jacqueline West, senior visual effects supervisor Dan Glass, editor Mark Yoshikawa, and composer Alexandre Desplat, but the section on casting includes a reunion of child actors Hunter McCracken, Laramie Eppler, and Tye Sheridan at the "hero house" that was their primary location. Also included is the film's "Theatrical Trailer" (2:08, HD).
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