As films go, The Tree of Life is a huge thing — a movie by a man with the audacity to take as his apparent subject all of human existence. “I know something about the cosmos,” Terrence Malick seems to declare, “because I grew up with two brothers under the parentage of a gruff father and a beaming, adoring mother in sun-dappled environs of Oklahoma and Texas.” He’s not wrong. The greatest filmmakers have shown us again and again that there is no story that cannot, in the right hands and with the right gestures, be spun out to dimensions that encompass questions of love and faith, life and death, regret and longing.
Those are certainly the questions on Malick’s mind here, as he works out a story about a man who grew up as a boy loving, fearing, and ultimately resenting his father. Sean Penn plays that man — a dour corporate type stalking Houston’s gleaming corridors of power — and although the film is his story, he’s barely visible in it. Most of the film takes place decades in the past, where we learn about the upbringing that shaped him. Brad Pitt plays his father in those scenes as a figure of ordinary tragedy — he’s a sidetracked musician, a frustrated inventor, an unrewarded company man. He may not be sure exactly how his life went wrong, but he wants his boys to avoid the same missteps. He thus urges them to be tough men, self-serving men of no great charity.
The boy’s mother, played by Jessica Chastain (she was trained as a dancer from a young age and oh how it shows), gets short-changed as far as character is concerned, but is even more dominant a presence in the film than the father. Malick photographs her in loving close-up, dresses her in costumes that accentuate her delicate throat and collarbones, and even, for one long moment, has her float, fairy-like, a few feet above the grass. We don’t see a real woman but young Jack’s idealized conception of his mom.
It’s in the film’s long and extraordinary opening section, which moves like music and lingers like poetry, that we’re introduced to the family. But before we can become comfortable with them, Jack’s mother receives notice via Western Union of his younger brother’s death at 19. The scene is disorienting, partly because it arrives within the first reel of the film and partly because Malick won’t stoop to exposition. The questions are many: was the boy a soldier? In the Korean War? Where are the other children? Grown and gone? It falls on mother and father to comfort each other as best they can. (I don’t believe they’re named in the film, but the credits say they’re Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien.) The emotions are harrowing; Mrs. O’Brien is inconsolable. When other mourners sharing some small fraction of her grief assure her that life goes on, their attention feels like a cruelty. And she begins to question the intentions of God, out loud, in cooly whispered, prayerful lines of dialogue. They are, of course, a Malick trademark. And this time, in a film that begins with a quote from the Book of Job, they are central.
Now, Malick is hardly the first filmmaker to show us characters who cry out at the silence of God, but he is perhaps the most unquestionably American. Ingmar Bergman had a go at God by recasting him as a spider; Andrei Tarkovsky once set the struggle for the fate of the world inside an empty sulphur spring bath. But when Malick wants to evoke the glory of God’s creation, he doesn’t resort to oblique symbol and coy metaphor. He hires a VFX team and makes it happen up there on screen, sending his film on a literal-minded journey back in time to the first stirrings of Creation. His movie has dinosaurs! (Covering all bases, it also features the extinction of dinosaurs.) This long, IMAX-ready digression, so quintessentially Hollywood in its devotion to spectacle, is simultaneously ridiculous and sublime, ponderous and delightful. Would it be cheeky to suggest that Malick owes a debt to Disney’s “Rite of Spring” sequence from Fantasia?
Malick is hardly a conventional studio filmmaker, and his influences are more wide-ranging than a comparison to Disney — a taunt, really — suggests. One breathtaking shot, held just long enough to register on the retina, introduces the kaleidoscopic colors of a spiral of stained glass that is echoed later in a post-Koyaanisqatsi riot of blurred city lights that evoked, for me, both Stan Brakhage and Wong Kar-Wai. (For all I know, some of the spirit-of-God shots pay direct homage to Brakhage’s The Text of Light, which they strongly resemble.) The sterile corporate environs where Sean Penn’s character plies his trade are redolent of the office aesthetic that Jacques Tati mocked so comprehensively in Play Time. (I think they also function as a sidelong criticism of the kind of Hollywood thriller that labors to imbue such a setting with a banal sexiness.) And so on. At one point during the beginnings-of-the-universe segment I was reminded, oddly, of Kieslowski; I had to wait until the end credits to realize that a piece by Kieslowski’s signature composer Zbigniew Preisner had been included on the soundtrack.
The lengthy segment that opens The Tree of Life, leading into the beginnings-of-life sequence, is like an overture. It’s a magnificent, cascading sequence of images — captured with breathtaking alacrity in natural light by the great cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and assembled by a five-man editorial team — cut to the quick and joined in headlong juxtapositions that can make the breath catch in the throat. It’s a labor-intensive style of impressionistic montage, and it’s positively transporting — one of the crowning achievements of contemporary cinema. Eventually, the film succumbs to more conventional narrative rhythms that can’t help but pale in comparison.
I was less wowed by the schema of Malick’s story — the opposing forces of nature and grace, man and the divine — and put off by the more conspicuously labored elements of his vision, like Mom’s aforementioned magic-realist mid-air antics. As Malick reveals the specific details of his story, the too-familiar whys and wherefores of Jack’s coming-of-age ennui, it becomes more ordinary, making the tragic grandeur of the film’s final sequences, which include a depiction of the end of our solar system, easier to deny. And if you can resist even the imagery, which returns simple beauty as a response to pain and offers up the general glory of the world as evidence of God’s guiding hand, the level of insistent sentiment may put you in mind of a Hallmark card.
In the end Malick makes a simple plea for peace on earth, and it’s hard not to be won over by the gentleness with which he urges us to embrace love and understanding and forgiveness in our ordinary lives. It has become clear, finally, that The Tree of Life isn’t the story of the O’Briens. It is in nearly every way the story of Jack. Toddler Jack who wears a frown after the sudden arrival of a younger sibling on the scene. Pubescent Jack who steals away with a neighbor’s intimates, then send the evidence floating down the river. Teenage Jack who sends a frog skyward, strapped to a tiny rocket. (God lives there, his mother told him.) Adolescent Jack who wishes his father dead. Adult Jack, still frowning, and holding a grudge.
The film’s closing sequence has been described by some critics as a depiction of the afterlife, with Jack and the people important to him assembling together on a heavenly beach. Maybe this is just my secular interpretation of a religious metaphor that I don’t really get, but I disagree. Jack isn’t close to his expiry date, nor does he seem particularly suicidal. I think he’s mingling, finally, at the edge of the water, with the phantoms of his remembered past. His brothers and his mother are young and beautiful, just as he has idealized them. We don’t see his father, although when Jack reaches out toward him there’s a startling moment when we see that the limb proffered from off-screen is a withered old man’s hand. I read that as a simple vision of reconciliation, reaching out after spending so many years isolated inside a downtown fortress of concrete and glass. In that context, the film’s final images — they include a field of sunflowers standing tall and a bridge built across the waters — are stubbornly hopeful.
“Unless you love,” mother instructs, “your life will flash by.” For better and worse, Jack, you’re the man your father made. You’re unhappy. Maybe it’s his fault. But you took his advice. Plenty of blame to weigh on both your shoulders and his. You lost your brother. It’s devastating. But the universe is dying. The sun will eventually swallow itself. So get over it. In God’s grand scheme, all of existence is a simultaneity. You can make good on your life in the fullness of time.
It’s not too late. Take his hand. You know what they say. Life goes on.