Terrence Malik’s The Tree of Life has been by far the most difficult movie for me to review. I did not have much trouble understanding it, but it has taken tremendous effort for me to describe and interpret the film. Even now, I’m unsure if I am properly relaying the sheer artistry of Malik’s latest endeavor. I can only suggest in broad strokes what I hope you will discover yourself and say the film’s mysterious images, meditative pace and celestial themes make it one of the most enthralling motion picture experiences in recent years.
I estimate the footage that passes for story covers 80 to 100 minutes of the film’s 138-minute running time. This section records 1950s family life in Waco, Texas, with an abusive father (Brad Pitt), an angelic mother (Jessica Chastain) and rival sons (Hunter McCracken, Laramie Eppler and Tye Sheridan). The rest of the film features depictions of Earth’s formation and ruminations by the eldest son, Jack (played as an adult by Sean Penn). The whole film is linked by a comment in the opening narration: people must choose between the brutish way of nature and the compassionate way of grace. Ultimately, I think The Tree of Life concludes that the way of nature must be experienced before attaining the way of grace.
The imagery in the cosmic segments (matched with a magnificent score mixing classical works with new compositions by Alexandre Desplat) indicates that the universe exhibits the way of grace while individual fractions of existence quarrel with both extremes. The planets and constellations are quiet and serene. The animals on Earth, ranging from jellyfish to dinosaurs, inadvertently display both traits through their appearance and behavior. Elements like water are forceful in the wild and passive when tamed by man. The primary concern for these creations is to live, not to ascend to any harmonious state. Only single-minded objects (trees aching to reach the cosmos) and beings that learn forgiveness (a strangely merciful dinosaur) can approach the way of grace.
The conflict between nature and grace extends to the Texas family sequences. Through these characters’ mindset, the idea of grace is replaced by the idea of God. The parents try to raise their boys to follow God’s example and their own. The mother and middle child maintain purity while the father and Jack rely on base instincts. This leads to some affecting scenes in which Jack rashly acts out his frustrations with his father and brother. (The silent instances of this pay tribute to the power of inference.) Jack’s actions and thoughts become rather brutal, but this section is resolved in a touching way. These scenes could have seemed puny coming after the birth of the universe, but Malik creates them with such drama and visual poetry that they prove equally stirring.
With The Tree of Life, the most obvious and agreeable comparison to make is with Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Their composition is the same: a primal account of Earth’s beginnings followed by a lengthy human interlude with an allegorical finale. Both movies observe humanity’s desire to understand destiny in a universal context. The key difference is Kubrick says men are becoming machines while Malik says humans are inherently animalistic. Kubrick’s movie is an objective and somewhat icy experience, but Malik’s movie is an emotional one. His humans are characters rather than figures, and he pays enough attention to them that he makes their lives feel as seismic as the Big Bang.
I expect The Tree of Life is a movie you can never see twice; you’ll interpret it another way each time. Since it is no longer playing in Norfolk, which is two hours from me anyway, I won’t be able to test that assumption until the movie is released on Blu-ray (I pray The Criterion Collection will handle it), but I certainly look forward to seeing it again. The Tree of Life is a reminder of how versatile and emotive cinema can be. It is large yet intimate, imaginative yet grounded and theoretical yet soulful. It is the most remarkable cinematic experience moviegoers could hope to see right now.