Since releasing his debut feature Badlands in 1973, writer-director Terrence Malick has made just four other features; The Depression-era romance Days of Heaven in 1978 starring a pre-American Gigolo Richard Gere, the Oscar-nominated World War 2 epic The Thin Red Line in 1998, the Pocahontas drama The New World in 2003 starring Colin Farrell and Christian Bale, and now the Palm D’ Or-winning The Tree of Life. In spite (or perhaps because) of this relatively short filmography, he has come to earn a reputation as one of cinema’s most gifted and concurrently, most frustrating filmmakers. Reactions to his films tend to range from “masterpiece” to “pretentious trash,” thus securing his place in cinema as a true artist.
And all this for good reason; simply put, Malick is a guy who composes poems in a medium beset with prose. Sure, his works are literature but they’re something far removed from most to everything out there; Watching and trying to make sense of his work can be an overwhelming, even frustrating experience for anyone used to watching prose-friendly mainstream cinema (myself included). That being said, The Tree of Life is simultaneously Malick’s most ambitious and least accessible film to date. Searching for a narrative to grab onto in this film would be akin to finding comedy in Schindler’s List. In other words, you’ll be hard-pressed to find it and even if you did, you’d have to be in another state of mind.
What state of mind you ask? Let’s just say if you preoccupy yourself with something insignificant as the meaning of life or other existential questions, then this would be up your alley. On the other hand, if you go to the movies to escape from your daily routine (like most of us do), then sorry bud, this one’s not for you. That’s not some smug comment intended to state that only cinephiles can enjoy this film. No, not even an infinite knowledge of film history can prepare someone to automatically LIKE The Tree of Life or any of Malick’s films for that matter. You just have to gel with his work. It’s kind of like heavy metal or country music; you’re either into it or you’re not.
If you’re deciphering my tone so far as a denouncement, don’t because I didn’t hate The Tree of Life; on the contrary, I think it’s an ambitious work of art that is sumptuously photographed by cinematographer extraordinaire Emmanuel Lubezki (who WILL get an Oscar nomination), richly acted and masterfully shot. It’s just a very different type of cinematic experience, and something that, sadly, didn’t do much for me.
Bookended with a cosmic flame, Malick’s film opens in the early 1960s, introducing us to the O’Briens, played by Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain. The couple has just received word that their 19-year-old son has suddenly died (the cause is left unexplained). This tragedy prompts them to ask God, in their own separate ways, why he has done such a thing to them. In the present day, on the anniversary of his brother’s death, the couple’s other son Jack (Sean Penn), a cold and withdrawn architect, reflects on his place in the universe and the meaning of death in the grand scheme of it all. These reflections invoke the memories of years as an adolescent (Hunter McCracken) in suburban Texas in the mid 1950s where he was caught between choosing a path in life – the way of grace (exemplified by his mother) or the path of nature (personified by his father).
But before we go back to Jack’s childhood, Malick takes us all the way back to the moment where it all began in an epic 20-minute segment which I will henceforth dub as the “Creation” segment. Covering the creation of the universe from the moment of the Big Bang and the origins of life on planet Earth to the evolution of dinosaurs, this sequence is without a doubt the greatest piece of cinema I’ve seen this year (this isn’t a hyperbole, I promise!). Perfectly marrying gorgeous classical motifs over special effects-created imagery that I can only describe as a fusion of oil paintings, CGI and the cosmos, this “creation” segment is ballsy, masterful cinema that’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. During this sequence, I was transfixed, overwhelmed, and dare I say it, on the verge of having a geek-gasm. In many ways, this sequence recalled the day I first witnessed Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, still one of the most visionary films ever made.
Sadly, after that segment, there’s still more than an hour and a half’s worth of screen time remaining. Most to all of it is dedicated to Jack’s childhood in Texas and his growing resentment towards his loving but tough, sometimes abusive father, who is also struggling with his career as an engineer/inventor. While there are some elements in this extended portion of the picture that are marvelous – the cinematography, a segment depicting Jack’s earliest years on Earth from infant to toddler, and Brad Pitt’s fantastic performance – I found a lot of it ponderous and dull. Intertwine this with shots of Sean Penn moping about the empty state of his rich life within chilly metallic skyscrapers, empty doorways and cliffs, all while characters whisper existential questions (“Mother… Father… Lord… What are thee? Who am I? Why am I?”) via voiceover narration and I was ready to bludgeon an infant.
From what I’ve gathered from press releases and articles dedicated to this film, a lot of what we see in The Tree of Life is based on Malick’s childhood in Waco, Texas (Malick also lost a brother). So this film is, in many ways, an autobiographical and existential look at life from the perspective of Malick. This would have been a tad interesting if he were more preoccupied with a coherent plot than random shots of mountains, waterfalls, birds, bugs, trees and clouds.
Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life is a film that meanders between art and pretension. Though it remains the most gorgeously photographed, scored and shot film I’ve seen this year (the “creation” sequence warrants the term “masterpiece”), it’s an extremely challenging work that is more a poem than anything else. To say that this picture isn’t for everyone is a colossal understatement. This one is strictly for Terrence Malick aficionados and those who go to the movies to understand the meaning behind someone else’s boring life.