It’s a bit unfair, after years of waiting and anticipation and with a world of expectation weighing on the film, to begin writing a review of Terrence Malick‘s “The Tree Of Life” just minutes after leaving the screening this morning. With nearly as much time spent in line waiting to get in as watching the actual film, we would have preferred a bit more of a chance to let it linger and marinate (and perhaps more thoughts will follow in the coming days). But let’s get a couple of things out of the way to start with. Firstly, “The Tree Of Life” is not the cinema-changing, soul-shattering masterpiece it has been built up into. That said, it’s a hugely ambitious and occasionally brilliant undertaking that finds the director using the story of a fractured relationship between a father and his children to ask the question of ages: where is God? And oh yeah, if you’d prefer to go into the film without knowing anything at all about it, you’d do best to skip reading from this point on.
As the trailer suggests, the film is about the two paths that Malick believes are presented to us in life: the way of nature vs. the way of the grace. To call it good versus evil would be a bit too reductive; it’s more about living a life of selfishness with a focus on Earthly ambitions as opposed to one filled with love and generosity to your family and fellow man. These two paths are embodied by Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien (yes, a bastardly Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain), who are married and raising their three sons in 1950s Waco, Texas. Pitt believes in the way of nature. He’s a man whose dreams of being a musician were abandoned and who is embittered by the success of others. He continues to work hard, go to church and tithe his earnings but believes he has been unrewarded, and tells his older son Jack very simply, “If you want to succeed in this world, you can’t be too good.” On the opposite send of the spectrum is Chastain whose character, again as revealed in the trailers, very simply states, “Unless you love, your life will flash by.” Mrs. O’Brien tells her children to look after each other and every other creature on Earth.
When the film opens, the O’Briens are suffering the loss of their middle child, receiving a telegram that he has died at the tender age of nineteen. Mrs. O’Brien is devastated asking, “Lord why? Where were you?” Malick uses this moment of death to circle back to the origins of the universe. While the loss of the child is monumental, Malick mourns that pain but also wants us to see the glory of the world that is around us and how little we are in the grand scope of things. This sequence — which runs in the first third of the film and undoubtedly made some distributors nervous — is an entirely wordless, evocative, music-filled and beautifully realized piece of filmmaking. We presume this was all footage compiled for the proposed “Voyage Of Time” documentary (and we hope it still happens because it will look even more stunning in IMAX) but it organically tracks life on Earth from the big bang, from single to multiple celled organisms, and then, yes, to dinosaurs, all while stretching back to reveal the glory and diversity of the world that has been created. It should be noted, that a small amount of the material is taken from stock footage and excerpted from the film “Home” by Yann Arthus-Bertrand, but the cumulative power of it is undeniable. And the work by the extensive special effects team (and researchers) tasked with imagining what space and the world might have looked like eons ago is tremendously impressive.
One we return to the characters, we start with the birth of Jack (played as a grown up by Sean Penn whose total time in the film is maybe about twenty minutes). Again, Malick forgoes a traditional narrative and uses a collection of impressionistic images and music to show the growth of this son, and the arrival of two more, and about forty-five minutes in, the more traditional “plot” finally begins to unwind. The middle section of “The Tree Of Life” centers particularly on the father’s troubled relationship with his sons. He loves them deeply, but projects his own failed ambitions onto them, wanting to mould them into men that won’t flinch at the world. Jack is especially a focus of his father’s anger and hard love, and through a great performance by newcomer Hunter McCracken, we see him struggle with following his father’s advice or embracing the world with the wonder and faith of his mother.
“Are you watching me? I want to know what you are. I want to see what you see,” says Jack, and that plea, to a God who has created the world but seemingly left us here to figure it all out, permeates “The Tree Of Life.” Young men are disabled, children die or are maimed and arguments and anger abound behind the windows of the idyllic homes of the suburbs. While the film may seem at times like an agnostic’s argument about whether God is watching us or if there is even somebody there at all, the thematic core is more about struggling to understand why pain and suffering is brought upon the graceful of this world. Make no mistake, Malick certainly believes in a higher power, and that firm and clearly stated belief may be too much for some viewers.
The score is filled with hymns and religious pieces (it should be noted, Alexandre Desplat‘s compositions seem to be used fairly minimally) and the closing sequence of the film has “Amen” ringing out multiple times from Berlioz’s “Agnus Dei.” Indeed, the film’s overt solemnity gives the proceedings a sermon-like feel that can drag at times, evoking the feeling of a Sunday church service. It certainly doesn’t help that the extensive voiceovers from Mrs. O’Brien, and Jack both younger and older, are delivered in profound-sounding stage whispers which make the spiritual dialogue sound leaden, precious and pretentious: a subtler hand at times certainly would’ve helped. While Malick is great at extracting layers of mood and meaning out of a single shot, at other moments, the script and dialogue lands with blunt, hammer-like force. The details used to underline Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien’s differing perspectives on how to engage the world are at times presented with head-smacking obviousness: the missus gives water to thirsty criminals (really!); Dad teaches his children to be tough by getting them to hit him. This boldfacing of the thematic elements of the film is clumsy at best and in a picture that spends large swaths asking the audience to interpret, imagine and engage, it seems counter-intuitive.
The movie world is a fickle one. With “The Tree Of Life” now screened and appraised, in a few hours everyone will move on and by tomorrow it will be just another story from Cannes. Another entry that got talked about, perhaps divided some audience members (a small core booed the film, but they were quickly quieted by the rest of the Lumiere Theater) and got Brad Pitt onto the red carpet. The sun will set tonight and the great wait for and mystery surrounding Malick’s film will be over. But bursting with ideas, images, sounds and a deep well of spirituality rarely ever tackled in either independent or mainstream cinema, Malick’s film is still an event. With “The Tree Of Life” the director has once again created a cinematic experience that is uniquely his own, often powerful and mesmerizing, at times overreaching and overbearing, but never forgettable. It’s another bold stroke from one of cinema’s most original voices, so put the hype aside, and let “The Tree Of Life” take root. [B]