The Tree of Life ****
Directed by: Terrence Malick.
Written by: Terrence Malick.
Starring: Brad Pitt (Mr. O'Brien), Hunter McCracken (Young Jack), Sean Penn (Jack), Jessica Chastain (Mrs. O'Brien), Laramie Eppler (R.L.), Tye Sheridan (Steve), Fiona Shaw (Grandmother).
Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life is the most original, daring movie to come out of Hollywood in years. The film will be either a love it or hate it experience for most viewers. Some, like me, will be swept up into Malick’s gloriously inventive, visually stunning, richly emotional film, and others will think it’s a slow moving piece of crap where nothing happens. And others will simply be confused. I would say that this is the type of film Hollywood doesn’t make anymore, but the truth is that Hollywood never made films like this. The only comparable film I can think of is Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and even that doesn’t quite do The Tree of Life justice. It is quite unlike anything I’ve really seen before.
I am struggling to come up with a way to describe The Tree of Life. It certainly does not have a traditional narrative arc that we have come to expect from movies. Instead, The Tree of Life really is about the human experience – about everything from birth to death, not just of one human life, but of all human life. Yes, it does focus on one family in Texas in the 1950s, and one thinks that they represent Malick and his family, as he is from Texas and would have been the age of the protagonists, Jack (an amazing Hunter McCracken) during that time period. But they stand in for the rest of the us. So while this undoubtedly an extremely personal film for Malick, it is also somewhat universal. No wonder he took so much time to make it.
The film opens with scenes of Jack as an adult (and played by Sean Penn). He is a successful businessman of some sort, seemingly lost in the modern world of sky scrapers and glass office buildings. The walls almost seem to be closing in around him, trapping him. We see him go about his daily routine, and while there are a few words spoken, none of them really matter – except a phone call with his father, where all we can make out is Jack apologizing to his old man. Yes, he thinks about him every day, but he shouldn’t have reacted like that. “Him” is Jack’s younger brother R.L., who we know died when he was 19. We see their mother (Jessica Chastin) breaking down and crying, while their father (Brad Pitt) maintains a hard, cold exterior – not wanting to show any weakness to anyone, not even his own family.
We get a few scenes of them as they were in the 1950s, before Malick takes us on a dazzling, special effects laden ride lasting about an half an hour. In this sequence, the film’s most daring, innovative and astonishing sequence in the film, Malick takes us from the Big Bang through the ages as single cell organisms expand and divide, come out of the water, and then evolve – eventually becoming dinosaurs. He ends this sequence with meteors hitting the earth, and the beginning of the ice age. Through this, we get a few snippets of voice over, but mainly just the music. The sequence will call to mind the worm hole sequence of 2001: A Space Odyssey, and on another level, the opening of that film involving monkeys. Like Kubrick, Malick is not simply telling a story about specific humans, but about the human experience – human history from the beginning, perhaps right until the end.
From there, the film becomes more narrative driven – at least in terms of what we had seen up until that point. We move from the history of the world, to the history of one boy – Jack. We see him come into the world, and for a while, we see the world as he would see it as a child – confusing, big, only catching glimpses of the adult world that he does not comprehend – the carefree days of being a child, the jealously that comes when another child is born and enters his world. Finally, when Jack is around 12 or, the movie slows down, and tells the story of one summer in his family’s life. The film however much more attuned to the emotions of the characters, the memories of that summer, and what emotions is brings up in the characters, than following a specific arc.
The critics who believe that Malick does not care about actors, or as one critic put it “cares more about the grass under the actor’s feet than the actor himself” are just plain wrong. The performances in Malick’s films are absolutely crucial in establishing the films tone, and their emotional resonance. Here, Brad Pitt delivers one of his very best performances as the strict, but not unloving, father. To some, he will seem overly strict – perhaps even cruel – but I think Pitt does an amazing job at making this man entirely realistic and sympathetic. He is not an uncaring monster, but a man who was raised a certain way, fought in a war, and wants the best for his children. He does not want them to make the same mistakes that he thinks he has made. The only way he knows how the encourage his children is the push them – to expect the most from them. He may seem strict, but he is far from abusive. His kids may at times hate him – but what kid does not at times hate their parents. For her part, Jessica Chastin’s performance is much more about body language than about what she says – she rarely says much of anything in fact. She is more loving, provides a safe place for her children to go – but is also the model 1950s housewife, rarely questioning her husband. The key performance in the movie, and perhaps its best one, is by Hunter McCracken, who captures the confusion, joy, pain and embarrassment of being a child better than just about any child actor I have ever seen before. I’m not sure if Malick simply drew it out of him, or he really is that good, because it is a quietly astonishing performance.
I know there are some people – many perhaps – who are going to hate The Tree of Life. After all, it doesn’t give audiences what they have come to expect from movies – not even the films of Terrence Malick, which while abstract, were always more narratively driven than this film. Malick takes him time making his films – since his debut film Badlands in 1973, he has only made four other films – Days of Heaven in 1978, The Thin Red Line in 1998 and The New World in 2005. All of those films are masterpieces though. He may take his time, but he delivers. But those films, as great as they are (and if you haven’t seen them, do so) all seem like a warm up to The Tree of Life, and film that is quite simple at another level from his previous films – on another level from the films of almost any director. You may hate The Tree of Life, but I guarantee you that if you watch it, you will never forget it. It is a one of a kind masterpiece, and the most ambitious film I have seen in years. There are few films that you know while watching it for the first time that you know will be talked about and debated in films classes forever. The Tree of Life is one of those films.