Review: The Tree of Life
4 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund
The greatest thing about the films of Terrence Malick is that they're always grasping for something colossal well beyond the confines of the medium – a transcendence that not even a filmmaker of Malick's glorious grace and mastery can capture. His movies do not explore mere themes, but immeasurably lofty chunks of the very essence of life experience. At 29, he took on the nature of sin with “Badlands,” channeling it through the apathetic deeds of a lonely, besotted young couple. “Days of Heaven” biblically traversed the steep hills of man's need to work – and to pursue comfort and security – through the eyes of a thick-skinned young girl aged by circumstance. In “The Thin Red Line,” frailty, and the precarious mortal edge on which we all stand, found its vessel in a band of WWII soldiers privately dealing with their collectively dire straits. If not love and exploration, then a oneness with the earth – a spiritual connection to it – was surveyed in “The New World,” a symphonic epic guided by the perfect point players of John Smith and Pocahontas.
Never has Malick's reach been more ambitious – his limbs more outstretched, if you will – than with “The Tree of Life,” his breathlessly awaited fifth feature, which forgoes chunks and strives to explore just about everything. There is, again, a grounded, intimate scenario that serves to juxtapose, but the scales are drastically tipped in favor of the less tangible this time out, as Malick sets his sights on existence itself. More than seven years in the making, the Cannes Palme d'Or winner is a breathtaking, if imperfect, achievement, both for maker and for viewer. I say that not only because the film has been so torturously delayed, not only because its latter portion has an indulgent pace that requires a certain endurance, but because it delivers a sense of affirmation that's very rarely accomplished through picture and sound. It's miles – light years – away from a movie that's simply watched.
It begins with a flame, or maybe the interior of a womb, then proceeds with 138 of the most stunningly photographed minutes 2011 is likely to offer. There is no delay to the unfurling of knockout compositions, which through the course of the picture include everything from schools of shimmering jellyfish to stretches across an endless desert to the back-to-back orange imagery of bubbling magma and splitting cells (in addition to DP Emmanuel Lubezki, some of the visuals are credited to a handful of commissioned cinematographers). Indeed, the movie starts to play out like “Planet Earth” as made by a cinematic poet, and it's easy to see why certain critics have booed it for pomposity. But rarely, if ever, does a shot feel unconsidered, or unsuccessful in its underscoring or exaltation of a mood or deeper purpose. With the violent surge of waves and rivers, or the gentle sway of sunflowers, we get the tumult and beauty of a 1950s Texas family, who live on a suburban street encased in a cathedral-like canopy of green trees. Early on we learn that one of the family's three sons has died. The father (Brad Pitt), Malick's stern embodiment of “nature,” and mother (Jessica Chastain), his angelic embodiment of “grace,” react in the ways their roles designate. In modern day, the grown eldest son, Jack (Sean Penn), is still struggling with the loss of his brother. From here, Malick zooms out and winds back to depict, if not the birth of the universe, then at least the start of life on earth, envisioning gaseous activity in outer space, the development of fetuses, the rise and fall of the dinosaurs and the emergence of sea life.
This portion, and all that leads up to it, play out as more song than movie, more poem than film. It's a style that's common for Malick, but it's never been more pronounced. Images are fused together in lyrical fashion, and captured by a camera that seems to never stop moving. We glide from the minute to the divine, the domestic to the wild, then catapult into an extensive Kubrickian sequence in space, which may give fuel to the naysayers, but is gorgeous and awesome in all its existential weight. A soul-shaking score by Alexandre Desplat (and a host of greats like Bach and Mahler) accompanies much of what we see, roaring and sweeping and then settling in moments of serenity. The story – which is to say the tale of the family and the tale of all of us – is vocally conveyed through Malick's signature inner-monologue narration (the mother and Jack are often talking to God), and dialogue that's direct, but not directly expository. As if to express the racing transience of life, the film's first half or so has no time to pause for conversation, or even to show a person speak. Spoken dialogue is generally heard while the character's feet, back, surroundings or interactions with others are in view. If not to maintain a disconnect to support the film's universality, the lack of facial freeze frames works to augment Malick's roundabout, impressionistic storytelling, which adamantly meanders while barreling forward. The more we yearn for some sort of a traditional narrative, the more the film seems to avoid it.
And yet, for all its restless fluidity, “The Tree of Life” does lose its momentum, precisely when it yields to those yearnings. Malick narrows his focus onto the family, showing the birth and growth of the boys and, specifically, charting Jack's formative adolescent years. Amidst production designer Jack Fisk's meticulously recreated small-town Americana, Jack witnesses his first death, crosses paths with societal outcasts, experiments with violence and struggles with hormones, all while questioning God and faith. He embraces the grace of his mother and clashes with the hard nature of his father, two opposing forces that stick with him for life. Malick certainly digs up a whole lot of basic truths with this storyline, and, as always, his unabashed presentation of religion is not specified preaching, but a voicing of the same quandaries that eat at every human being. I, however, had a hard time abiding the leisurely mode the film adopts, even with the knowledge that it's a deeply personal project (Malick's own Texas upbringing is reportedly a key inspiration). Interest wanes as we linger on the family, and even the power of the images is lessened (it's like walking through the Vatican's art collection – the sheer overabundance eventually desensitizes you to the beauty). Things appropriately culminate with an ethereal vision of the afterlife, but, by that point, there's an ultimate impact that's lacking.
Still, this string of criticisms should in no way undersell the movie's marvelous peaks. Perhaps most excitingly, “The Tree of Life” seems to represent the apex of Malick's own narrative, which itself reads as being mystical and momentous. A philosopher who studied at Harvard and Oxford before graduating from the AFI Conservatory, the uncannily talented director has remained an enigma throughout his career, refusing interviews and famously disappearing for lengthy periods (two decades passed between the releases of “Days of Heaven” and “The Thin Red Line”). But however wide the professional gaps, he returns to a spiritual through-line that's woven through his works, each of them part of a bigger picture. At the simplest, most obvious level, we receive nuggets – bread crumbs – that lead us to the following chapter. There's much talk of a “new world” in “The Thin Red Line,” and “The New World” ends with a skyward shot of a tree, from trunk to outstretched limbs. The bread crumbs in “The Tree of Life” have yet to reveal themselves, but with a chapter this all-encompassing, the question stands: what can Malick, who's already lined up his next effort, possibly explore next?