The films of Terrence Malick are hieroglyphs and dream visions; their meaning or purpose often so cryptic that despite their obvious beauty they alienate many viewers. Great art is of course a matter of taste but the jury at Cannes saw fit to award “The Tree of Life” with the Palme d’Or. However anyone familiar with Malick’s back catalogue (a tiny five films in a career spanning almost forty years) will see their expectations fulfilled: the director’s thoughtful and meandering style permeates this picture as it did “The Thin Red Line” and “The New World.” It’s clear from the outset that the film isn’t for everyone – it’s not exactly Michael Bay after all – but if you have the patience to endure not only its running time but a few bumpier moments also, you will potentially be rewarded with a powerful and highly personal experience.
The film begins in the late 50s as Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien (Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain) are informed of the death of their second son at the age of 19. Their tidy suburban lifestyle is torn apart. Simultaneously in the present day the couple’s eldest son Jack (Sean Penn) reflects on the same event as he goes about his work. As they question the significance of their story within the greater world and the universe, Malick launches into an abstract 20 minute montage, presenting images of space and nature before returning to 50s Texas to recount Jack’s formative years and the strained relationship with his father. It is difficult to coherently sum up the disjointed narrative that follows but perhaps the plot is only the means for posing much greater questions. Chief among these is the child’s innocence, the vision of a perfect or ideal world, a vision that is shattered almost immediately by a far grimmer reality. Mr. O’Brien is a devout Christian, a failed pianist who has become an engineer, trying to educate his sons through strict discipline thus choking off a more free spirited world embodied by Jessica Chastain. Malick calls this a choice between the way of grace or the way of nature – which might be which is an interpretation left to the viewer. The screenplay carefully sidesteps any mention of “God” (a greater being is simply referred to directly as “you”) but a spiritual significance can easily be divulged from the powerful images, if it be “Mother Nature” or otherwise is once again ambiguous.
The chosen setting of the 1950s is ideal for “The Tree of Life,” quite possibly hinting at a personal tale for the director. The look is absolutely authentic and Emmanuel Lubezki’s steadicam-driven images capture lend the picture a feel that is down to earth and natural. The entire cast is well chosen though the performances of the child actors easily eclipse what the adults can muster. Hunter McCracken leads as young Jack, Laramie Eppler and Tye Sheridan filling the other two roles. McCracken in particular has all the makings not of a star but of a serious actor, displaying both restraint and a huge spectrum of emotions – he is without doubt the film’s greatest discovery. As the domestic relationship between the O’Briens deteriorates, the confusion at violence, the inability to understand a world that is so beautiful and yet so cruel are channelled through the boy and his experiences drive the film when Malick threatens to get lost in his own roundabout ways.
Several aspects do encumber the flow of the film some detractions are noteworthy. Several of the images presented in the montages seem out of place. A short episode with dinosaurs clarifies that Malick is expanding the question of significance across all of time but their presence feels jarring, CGI and out of place. Quite frankly if you have awesome images of space (and therefore time) why bother to bring Jurassic Park along? Arguably this montage as well as an extended coda presenting a utopia of sorts go on for a bit too long to maintain interest. It’s possible to simply sit back and enjoy the glorious imagery but the family drama is far more enthralling. Some will find the work in it’s entirety to be far too ambiguous or even too philosophical and spiritual – it certainly won’t speak to everyone. However “The Tree of Life” is in the end an ode to the wonder of our earth and all the life in it. If you consider it a masterpiece or not, Malick remains a mysterious master of his art and continues to dazzle with films that are just, well, refreshingly different from everything else that’s out there.
Among film composers, Malick’s work ethic of endlessly editing and re-editing is notorious. Very often Malick will substitute a written score with classical music at the last minute. Alexandre Desplat’s original score has been released on the soundtrack but unsurprisingly the end credits revealed a multitude of classical pieces, with Desplat’s work limited to less than 15 minutes. With music playing such a significant part in the film it is questionable why Malick hired a composer in the first place. On CD, the music makes for a pleasant if minimalist and relatively undemanding listen. The “great questions” are reduced to a simple piano theme that slowly turns this way and that much like the films itself. It’s reminiscent of some of Philip Glass’ work; nondescript but with an almost otherworldly beauty. In comparison to some of Desplat’s stronger works and to the classical replacements however, the music fails to reach quite the same level. And if you want to hear what was featured in the film, this is the wrong place to search.
“The Tree of Life” is in one word, beautiful. It’s not quite as powerful as “The Thin Red Line” but it’s unlikely you will see a more unusual film in 2011. Unusually for Malick, he has another film in the pipeline as soon as next year and you should definitely be stoked.
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