The Difficult Gifts of The Tree of Life

The Difficult Gifts of <i>The Tree of Life</i>

Including glimpses of Sleeping Beauty in her glass coffin, the rings of Saturn, and a roadside Texas BBQ, Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life bears forth a variety of forms—and invites as many reactions. You may feel amazed or muddled, softly spoken to, or simply abandoned while watching it; in any case, you shouldn’t wait for the DVD. Better than a masterpiece—whatever that is—The Tree of Life is an eruption of a movie, something to live with, think, and talk about afterward.

The film begins with the O’Briens (Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain) receiving news of their teenaged son’s death, their grief echoing through perplexing shot sequences and sparse dialogue. It’s enough to confirm the scuttlebutt that The Tree of Life will be the most unorthodox Hollywood drama in many moons—and then the film’s perspective switches to the Hubble for a vision of the birth of the universe. From a nebulous “In the Beginning . . .” to the first articulations of life on Earth and the reign and extinction of the dinosaurs, this silent, self-contained sequence was conceived in collaboration with pre-CGI-effects legend Douglas Trumbull, fresh out of retirement. The image of a beached plesiosaur craning its neck to contemplate the fatal wound raked across its side lingers on, symbol of a wounding and disorienting work. It’s the big-budget experimental film George Lucas never had the stones to make.

Snap forward to the 1950s, the middle-class suburbs of Waco, and the O’Brien family in an earlier, happier moment. Jack (Hunter McCracken), the eldest of three preadolescent brothers, emerges as the axis of the film; the process of his education and acculturation to the edge of puberty is documented in a headlong style that lifts sometimes to singing montage. (Usually the crediting of five editors would be reason to panic; Mr. Malick’s film has very little truck with what’s usual.)

That's Life: Brad Pitt emerges.
Merie Wallace and 2011 Twentieth Century Fox Film
That's Life: Brad Pitt emerges.

Scenes occur as if bobbing on the surface of a family’s collective consciousness. We’re transported intermittently to a future where the boy Jack has grown up into a crabby Sean Penn, daydreaming from a glass rectangle in downtown Houston, a contemporary America to make Thomas Jefferson pack it in. In large part, the film can be read as occurring in the mind of adult Jack returning to his birthright of memories: the indivisible combination of Mom, Dad, God, and backyard.

Chastain’s mother is transparent with virtue, the idealized homefront sweetheart dreamed in Malick’s The Thin Red Line but now stretched gauzy over feature length. A less worshipfully written part gives Pitt more to do. Though more affectionate than our image of the flat-top Eisenhower-era patriarch, Mr. O’Brien badgers his sons with lessons in Looking Out For No. 1 and backyard boxing. Venting a bellyful of frustrated ambition, he talks covetously about the folks on the hill, brags about his worthless patents, and finds an outlet for unrealized musical aspirations by playing the church organ. This provides some of the classical music that fills Tree of Life, much of it liturgical, fitting Jack’s growing, paralleled disillusion with his father and the Father: “Why should I be good if you aren’t?” he’s asking both.

Though markedly faithful to Darwin, Malick’s film begins with a quotation from the Book of Job, imagines heaven, and features Mother pointing to the sky to deliver the lesson: “God lives there.” Like anything ambitious, Tree of Life will be called “pretentious,” but its characters address the gauche subject of the eternal, naturally, through the Judeo-Christian lingua franca instead of via a vague, enervated “spirituality.” In this, it is quite direct and accessible.

With his cosmic realism, Malick vividly remembers youth’s intimate yet huge idea of God, and Tree of Life’s Genesis overture recalls a child’s awed first conception of the vastness beyond his proscribed world. Thus prepared, you have fresh eyes to see suburbia as, yes, a miracle. The close touch of DP Emmanuel Lubezki’s Steadicam brings childhood rites near: roughhousing, betrayals of confidence, the clandestine thrill of being alone in a strange house, a child’s frank curiosity toward town drunks, cripples, and the black boys at that BBQ.

In his evocation of lost-Eden childhood, Malick shows the wisdom of C.S. Lewis’s An Experiment in Criticism: “If we are to use the words ‘childish’ and ‘infantile’ as terms of disapproval, we must make sure that they refer only to those characteristics of childhood which we become better and happier by outgrowing,” Lewis wrote. “Who in his sense would not keep, if he could, that tireless curiosity, that intensity of imagination, that facility of suspending disbelief, that unspoiled appetite, that readiness to wonder, to pity, and to admire?” It is because the 67-year-old director can get so much of that onscreen, and much more besides, that he’s one of the few American filmmakers operating on the multiplex scale who makes movies feel like undiscovered country.

 
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18 comments
Andrew Boley
Andrew Boley

Probably in about a decade this film will be seen as a masterwork in american cinema. The rottentomatoes numbers and the occasional "that movie was boring" will die out and all that will stand is something so layered and powerful that people who want to get into filmmaking will have a huge weight on their shoulders; How can you top Tree of Life?

Msimp0108
Msimp0108

Pretentious doesn't do the criticism justice. I hated this snail paced piece of crap. It was much worse than pretentious. If you are going to drag out a story, you better have a good reason. A profound lesson, not an obvious theme that we are forced to wade through meaningless imagery to get to. That is the epitome of pretentiousness.

Kathy C.
Kathy C.

(correcting my typos :))

GREAT REVIEW OF A GREAT FILM. Because I kept reading the word "pretentious" in certain reviews of this film, I looked up the meaning of the word. I just do not see how it applies to this beautiful masterpiece of a film.

Kathy C.
Kathy C.

GREAT REVIEW OR A GREAT FILM. Because I kept reading the word "pretentious" in certain reviews of this film, I looked up the meaning of the work. I just do not see how it applies to this beautiful masterpiece of a film.

Rosemary
Rosemary

I didn't love this film at all. It was like watching the 'visual' on iTunes whilst your music is playing - but feeling cramped in a seat on a long haul flight.

Ayadaddy91
Ayadaddy91

I love how those who like the film dismiss those who "don't get it". This film was a pretentious, self indulgent, waste of time. Some editing please! Brad Pitt muttering his lines, Sean Penn's angst with no outlet or defined source, and what an overdone sequence on the creation of the universe. Who said you couldn't get that done in less than half the time? Spin is spin, but this was boring, inconclusive, and really doesn't connect. Save your time for something worthwhile.

Steve
Steve

There's no reason to be belligerent just because some of us get it and you don't.

Msimp0108
Msimp0108

What pretentious reply! Ooooo, you are so artsy. Because you get it.

Jemery321
Jemery321

Obviously a complicated film to love. For those of us who are verbal and literal it's difficult to love this film. But I know many visual right-brain thinkers who would love it! For me, I have to sit here and chew on it for hours. As the father of 5 and 10 year old sons, I deeply understand the brad Pitt char's perspective...how to raise boys in this world, how to make them loving and caring and yet still able to survive.I think this is certainly a film worth watching and "processing."

Jemery321
Jemery321

Obviously a complicated film to love. For those of us who are verbal and literal it's difficult to love this film. But I know many visual right-brain thinkers who would love it! For me, I have to sit here and chew on it for hours. As the father of 5 and 10 year old sons, I deeply understand the brad Pitt char's perspective...how to raise boys in this world, how to make them loving and caring and yet still able to survive.I think this is certainly a film worth watching and "processing."

Also.."the thin red line" is one of my all-time favorite films

shbwinters
shbwinters

I have never witnessed such willfull disreading of a film: Yes, if you do believe the whole thing is a waste of time go, leave. But don't go online to display youself as the closeminded attention-challenged person that you may well be. But just maybe if you could settle down and let your will give way to the film's musical dance of poetry and image and ethereal requiems, you may glimpse a different way of experiencing the Masterpiece that you are blind to now.

Camilo
Camilo

Just saw this film an hour or two ago it is completely worth the watch. This is a different bread of film fascinatingly similar to 2001 a space odyssey. Kubrick would be proud. If you take film seriously or even your life give this a watch. If you prefer transformers and dick jokes to inception still give this a watch it could flip you to the right side =)

Kando22
Kando22

Maybe if it were shorter. And more dinosaurs:).

Uncle Rocco
Uncle Rocco

I just went, here's my unvarnished review. It felt to me like two and a half hours of claustrophobic torture, really complete bewilderment, the entire time. Dinosaurs? Really? People were walking out, and had I not been trapped in the center of a row, I likely would have walked out. Save your money, film buffs! Call me simple minded, but here's a spoiler: No, it never does eventually tell a story worth hearing, or present a perspective other than the filmmaker admiring himself, and congratulating himself for his astonishing collection of dramatic nature footage, and his mastery of the dogpaddle in the shalllow end of the theology pool.

Newgatemedia
Newgatemedia

what a piece of crap review... when did telling the reader the whole story become a review? Why would someone go and see a movie when the whole film has been described to them beforehand? You suck!

Mary Joseph
Mary Joseph

If you haven't seen the movie, then how would you know if the reviewer told the reader the whole story? There is MUCH to see here. This is an intensely VISUAL movie. It needs to be SEEN. No amount of writing about the movie could come close to spoiling it. Try to contain your self-righteous indignation and focus instead on a molecule of positivity in your being. It's much more productive than subjecting others to your misplaced anger and missive's "piece of crap" spew. Plus, you might learn something.

This is one of the better, more insightful reviews of "Tree of Life."

 

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