Yet there is something to be said about the cinema of Terrence Malick that keeps it from being seen in a completely objective light. A known recluse, Malick is, in many ways, the J.D. Salinger of film. Having made two of the definitive films of the 1970s (Badlands and Days of Heaven), he suddenly vanished for 20 years before releasing this third film, The Thin Red Line, in 1998. Seven years later, his fourth film, The New World, was released, and now 6 years removed from that film we arrive at his fifth film in nearly 40 years, The Tree of Life.
That air of mystique that surrounds Malick in some ways blesses his films with a virginal dressing, and has gained him something of a cult following. When the filmmaker is nowhere to be found to explain the films to anyone, it's up to us, the viewer, to interpret what we see for ourselves. Yet at the same time it casts the films in an inorganic view of expectation. Needless to say, that's not an ideal way to view or review any film. In any case, I'm here to do my best to just talk about the film itself. In a work this dense, that's about all you can do.
As I said before, I decided to hold off on my review of the film not only until I'd seen the film a second time, but just over a week later. I'm not sure seeing the film two days in a row would've been ideal. This is a film that was worth letting settle in my mind for some time before diving back in. Giving it that room to breathe proved worthwhile, and many of my own conflicted feelings were smoothed out on a second look yesterday. While I find that the film is completely un-spoilable in any way, due to the lack of a traditional narrative, I will get into specifics here, so those who want stay pure are hereby forewarned to proceed with caution.
The film opens with a quote from the Book of Job, as God demeaningly responds to Job's questioning of his trials, saying "Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth... while the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?" This is followed by a moment of narration on the film's thesis that there are two ways through life, the way of nature, and the way of grace, and that you have to choose which to follow. We then are brought to Mrs. O'Brien (Jessica Chastain), who is delivered a telegram that, as we gather, contains terrible news. She informs Mr. O'Brien (Brad Pitt), via telephone, while he is away on a business trip in an airfield. We come to understand that this terrible news is the death of their son, the middle child of three, at the age of 19.
The visceral, reactionary performances out of both actors as they hear this news is gut-wrenching. We follow them for a short time as they wander their yard and neighborhood, consumed with grief, consoled by friends and neighbors briefly. Mr. O'Brien relates a story about how he hit his son once when he turned the pages of his piano sheet music incorrectly. The pain and regret in his face is almost too much to bear.
Flash forward some 40-odd years and to the eldest son, Jack (Sean Penn). Jack wanders through the day, disillusioned and day-dreaming. It's the anniversary of his brother's death, and 40 years later, it still haunts him. An architect in the modern world, he is surrounded by cathedrals of stone and glass. "The world's gone to the dogs" as he says. After a brief stay with Jack, we flash back; ALL the way back, to the much-discussed creation of the universe sequence.
A cosmic ballet of epic proportions, this sequence is one of the most extraordinary things I've seen in a film. And with it comes the most important aspect of Malick's film. It makes us feel small. As if to answer the question from the Book of Job at the beginning of the film, we see just how insignificant this death in the O'Brien family really is compared to the formation of the universe and life itself.
This beautifully choreographed sequence will be completely lost and wasted on many. If you're not willing to engage the film's visual metaphysical storytelling by now, this is where it will truly lose you. However, those who are willing to look at it with open minds to discover what Malick is going for here will find it rewarding, and at its most basic level, visually stunning.
Which brings us to the now legendary dinosaur scene(s). A small herbivorous dinosaur is seen wounded or incapacitated in some way, when a larger predatory beast approaches it. Instead of turning the smaller one into its lunch, it merely observes the little one, pressing its foot on the creature's head a couple of times before running off, leaving the injured dinosaur to live on.
If anything, the dinosaur is an illustration of what could be the first act of humanity, compassion, or mercy. Contrasted by the shot of the Plesiosaur mending the wounds implied to have been inflicted by the school of sharks, we see that not all of nature is fierce will and self-serving. As life evolves, so does it’s capacity for humanity, though the urges towards selfish acts of nature, as Mr. O’Brien points out when lecturing the boys on how those who get ahead in life are the ones who cut down anyone in their path.
But we see visually that he cannot bring himself to full ascribe to his own philosophy, that even within a man who preaches this life driven by fierce will, he himself is inclined towards goodness and grace, being a good person (as illustrated by his devotion to his Catholic faith and affection for his family, and other people). So one could infer that this struggle within of nature and grace is not exclusive to Jack, but exists in his father as well. But that’s why his father preaches one way, because he feels frustrated with the fact that he can’t be a good person and be successful at the same time.
At the sequence's conclusion, we are treated to a beautiful shot of an asteroid tumbling towards earth, causing the mass extinction of the dinosaurs. Instead of filming the event in a cataclysmic way, we see the impact from a distance in space, making it all look rather small an insignificant again. The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away. If the mass extinction of life on a planet is this unimportant in the bigger picture, what then is the significance of one son's death? We soon find out.
After all this existential weirdness we finally focus on the O'Brien family as they raise their children in a small neighborhood in Waco, TX. It is in these two hours that Malick delivers some of his most truthful and beautiful work as a filmmaker. I could watch this story on loop. The emotional and psychological journey Jack takes through his childhood is so deeply affecting and personal that one can't help but be struck by how semi-autobiographical this film must have been for Malick. After all, Waco was where he was born and raised, and like Jack, he had a younger brother who played guitar but committed suicide at a young age. This section of the film is unquestionably when the film is at its strongest, and it resonates with me deeply.
Throughout this passage, Jack goes through his coming of age as he struggles with the conflict of nature and grace that dwells within him, and exists in the dichotomy of his parents. Which, I think, is the point of the film. It's not necessarily about nature vs. grace, so much as how the two coexist within each of us. As I pointed out before, it clearly isn't restricted to Jack, as his father struggles with the same conflict in many ways. We see Jack struggle with how much he resents his father for the harsh way he raises him, yet we come to learn that it's not necessarily that he hates him because of who he is, but because he finds himself later on becoming more and more like his father. This story would be wholly ineffective were it not for two miracle performances from Hunter McCracken and Brad Pitt. Jessica Chastain is angelic and pure as the mother, her ethereal beauty shining through in every frame. You get the sense Malick loves photographic her because, quite frankly, her face is one of the seven wonders of the world. She just looks like this angel descended from heaven and put on earth to teach her sons the way of grace. She is largely a symbolic character though. The meat of the story is within the conflict between McCracken and Pitt.
There is a fire in the eyes of this young actor, one that is impossible to replicate. His natural portrayal of a conflicted boy who struggles with his own inner workings is nothing short of perfect. And the way Malick captures this mostly through physical and observational direction is stunning. Less is more has never seemed so perfect a description. He has his first first-hand experience with death as a boy drowns in a pool (Barton Springs in Zilker Park, Austin, TX, for the observant among us). He struggles with his own sexual awakening. When his father leaves for a long business trip, he begins to emulate the harsh way of nature more than he'd like to, tormenting the younger, docile brother he once protected, and ignoring and verbally abusing his mother. The conflict rages within him and he doesn't understand it, questioning his faith in a God who would allow for such turmoil, internal and external. McCracken captures it effortlessly and without missing a beat.
Then there's Brad Pitt, who channels his primal nature into a powerhouse supporting turn as the family patriarch. Taking cues from his finest performance to date in The Assassination of Jesse James, he emerges as the embodiment of the nature and fierce will yet preaches to his sons, yet is conflicted within. In many scenes, he's shown as a very stern, strict father to his sons, yet there are moments when a gentler, compassionate side shines through. He's frustrated with his life. He has the potential to be successful, but isn't willing to betray his own goodness to get there. And because he struggles with it constantly, he never becomes a rich or powerful man. Instead, he has to settle for being the head of this household, and to raise his family the only way he knows how. He loves his sons so much but doesn't know how to really show it outside of physical affection though hugs and kisses on the cheek. He's terrified that his sons will repeat his mistakes and not get ahead in life, so he's hard on them and pushes them to be hardened. But because he spends so much time being frustrated with how he sees his own life as having stalled out, he misses the beauty of just living. In his final scene, Pitt channels all of Mr. O'Brien's pent up emotions and lets them flow out, resulting in a cathartic moment between Jack and his father that left me in tears. It is here the film reaches an emotional climax like no other, when much of the scars of the story are reconciled, but not forgotten. It's really something to behold.
If I'm being truthful, the film is weakest in its final moments. Admittedly, it must be truly difficult to wrap up such ambition, the final scene has us return to the adult Jack, who wanders through a not entirely compelling vision of the afterlife and his own visualization of his coming to terms with his faith and his brother's death. If anything, while it is an immaculately crafted and beautifully shot scene, it is a tad too literal compared to everything that has come before it. Most of my conflicted feelings about the coda were smoothed out on a second viewing, but it still feels like a strange bookend to place at the end of the larger narrative. Though I must admit that on a revisit, it doesn't seem as entirely unnecessary as it once did, and I wouldn't remove the scene at all, perhaps just shorten it and leave it a bit less obvious. I'm curious as to how it will play on further viewings, and how it will ultimately work with the larger whole. Frankly, I welcome the opportunity to look further into it. The film ends on a shot of a bridge over water, then returning to the mysterious flame we see several times throughout the film. Why? What does the bridge represent? The connection between nature and grace, rather than conflict? One of the pleasures of the film is these very questions that we ask ourselves about Malick's ideas.
Truthfully, I haven't had a film resonate with me this profoundly since I saw There Will Be Blood four years ago. The Tree of Life is such a dense, though-provoking, imperfect, beautiful, personal, rich, rewarding, transcendent, real experience. There's really never been a film like it before and there likely won't ever be. So much of this film cut deep into my very being. There are passages in the story of the O'Brien family that were like watching my own childhood come to life through the eyes of Terrence Malick. Rarely do I ever want to see a film again as soon as I leave the theatre, but that's exactly how I felt both times I've seen this film. Paradoxically Malick's most grandiosely conceived yet most intimate study, it is the kind of film worth discovering over and over again. Sam Shepard once said that "Many people have tried for years to intellectualize Terry's films. But I think to do so is to miss the point. His films aren't intellectual, they're visceral. It's not about what they make you think, but how they make you feel." That there's a filmmaker out there striving for this very thing is what convinces me that Malick is possibly the finest American filmmaker working today. He asks big questions through evocation of human feeling. The Tree of Life is proof positive of that, and it is no less than a masterpiece.