by Sam Juliano
For the second time in five years an American director has crafted a cosmic, impressionistic light show with profound spiritual underpinnings and an existential inquiry into the meaning of life and the indominability of love in the general scheme. Terrence Malick’s long anticipated The Tree of Life, like it’s 2006 cinematic soulmate The Fountain, explores the sensual possibilities of the cinema in an astounding rebuke to the conventions of multiplex fare that recalls Kubrick while at the same time establishing its own irregular aesthetic. This is the second time (after The New World) the reclusive director has opted to scrap any semblance of a narrative structure, choosing to tell his story through interlocking themes, intimate ruminations on life and humanity, and a kind of stream-of-consciousness that reveals the characters’ innermost thoughts often uttered underneath a perplexing metaphysical tapestry. Needless to say the enigmatic presentation will doubtlessly alienate some film fans, hungry for a more cogent connection between the awe-inspiring scenes depicting the beginnings of life on earth, and the perplexing and painful travails of a Texas family circa 1950.
The shape of The Tree of Life is more attuned to a symphony in music than it is to a story arc in literature. This is partly as a result of Malick wanting to express himself in “movements” where each evokes moods and textures, but are unquestionably tied to the larger whole of the work, where he intends everything to come full circle. Again recalling Kubrick, the director places music as the vital component to replace dialogue in enhancing his visuals with the proper aural accompaniment to bring his entrancing ideas to full fruition. Among other notable composers, Malick, echoing 2001: A Space Odyssey makes superlative use of Brahams, Gorecki, Berlioz, Bach, Holst and Mahler, which he apparently instructed Alexandre Desplat to incorporate into his own score. The sublime choral passages underline the film’s extraordinary second act, when Malick envisions the dawn of the universe include Zbigniew Preisner’s sublime “Lacrimosa” and give the film a spiritual undercurrent that oddly meshes with the astronomical truths that have always negated theological doctrine. After a planetarium-like showcase of the galaxies in flux, Malick moves back to earth and the prehistoric era, where he captures a cruel act that will later parallel the human clashes in his twentieth centry story. Further, the human fetus in the mother’s womb is a microcosm of evolution, where millions of years are compressed into a few months. There are subsequently long stretches of silence evinced in a visual holding pattern that will allow viewers to ponder the serious questions that are rarely posed in narrative films. In keeping with the central theme couched in the film’s title, Malick aims his camera up trunks to the loftiest branches and green leaves and beyond into the sky. Basically he takes up where he left off in The New World in bringing visual adornment to the the central symbol in all it’s awe-spiring and majestic beauty.
In any event the main story is an abstract coming of age tale that centers around young Jack (Hunter McCracken), one of the three sons of Pitt and his lovely wife (Jessica Chastain) who is before long coming face-to-face with death, iniquity and deviant behavior. In brief vignettes Jack watches the neighbor’s boy drown, breaches his brother’s trust, and steals a dress from another home. But the overriding domestic discord is caused by Pitt’s inability to overcome his authoritarianism. He instructs his kids to address him as “Sir” and even to “Hit me!” in toughening them up for life’s inevitable cruel turns. It’s clear enough that Pitt is loving and well-intentioned, but that he was scarred in a career gone astray. His propensity at the keyboard suggest a missed opportunity, caused by armed forces intervention. Likewise, with any luck, he may have secured a patent for his “inventions.” The mother is less vividly drawn, and in fact is only an ideal for her kids, representing the symbol of motherhood that follows the old-fashioned rules of patriarchal authority. But in this household a volcano is ready to explode. It mirrors the harmony and discord that characterize the difficulties in families when emotions are held in check.
Yet it’s clear enough that Malick’s overarching point is that mankind’s place in the general scheme is as miniscule as a blink of the eye in the billions of years since the Big Bang, and that feelings and memory are as fleeting as the onset of the next series of human events. Certainly one is reminded of the remembrances that are caught for a nano-second near the conclusion of Spielberg’s A.I Artifical Intelligence that are meant to last for all eternity.
It could be reasonably argued that the modern-day framing sequences involving the grown up Jack (played by Sean Penn as a successful architect) detract from the central story. Jack for one, appears distraught, and the largely wordless sequences are awkwardly staged and inconclusive, at least until the arresting sequence on the beach, ushered in by flowers, when the long-suffering souls are reconciled. The Tree of Life, which opened with a death (the middle son, R.L.) concludes with a kind of resurrection, a clear enough sign that Malick has infused his work with Christian principals, even if his scientific assertions are at odds with theological doctrine.
Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who brought such visual distinction to the futuristic Children of Men employs a roving camera to arresting effect, while imbuing the Texas sequences with a a mysterical pictorial beauty that has long become a Malick trademark. The 17 minute cosmic sequence of course immediately takes its place as one of the most astounding and spectacular segments in the history of the cinema, a fact that cements Lubezki’s place as a cameraman par excellence. Visual effects wizard Douglas Trumbull, whose work on 2001 is justly celebrated, served as a consultant on The Tree of Life, further establishing an artistic kinship with the 1968 film landmark. The meticulous and believable recreation of the film’s period was essentially the result of ongoing re-takes by Malick, and the work of production designer Jack Fisk and costume designer Jacqueline West.
As the tyrannical father who still professed an unconventional love for his children, Brad Pitt delivers what is probably the finest performance of his career. The film’s real finds however are Jessica Chastain, who plays the angelic, nature-loving mom, and young McCracken, a non-professional Texan found near the end of a talent search, whose expressiveness and rich portrayal rank among the most remarkable ever for a child actor. The Sean Penn role, as implied earlier, is more of a symbol than any kind of fleshed-out character, and it’s value here is little more than a marquee name.
The Tree of Life will inspire serious debate among cineastes for decades to come. It’s one of those rare films that has you thinking days after with the same veracity that dominated your consciousness in the hours immediately following the experience. It’s a towering work by a towering artist, and it will likely exaserbate as many as it will enthrall. It’s a metaphorical voyage into the outer recesses of memory, faith and the infinite that requires far more than the logistics of order and logic. The Tree of Life is both elusive and accessible, vague and lucid, real and surreal. Its a film about the loss of faith and the renewel of belief. Malick has mustered up the audacity to survey the cycle of life and it’s origins, and we can only look on riveted and enthralled on a level one rarely experiences within the confines of a movie theatre.
Final Rating: ***** (masterpiece)
Note: I saw “The Tree of Life” on Saturday evening, May 28th at 7:45 P.M. at the Sunshine Landmark Cinemas on Houston Street with Lucille, Broadway Bob and Bob Clark. Broadway Bob’s final opinion was scathing, while Bob Clark’s response falls somewhere in the middle. We all stopped at The Dish for a late night snack and enjoyed a marvelous talk.