I’m not too sure where to begin in describing The Tree of Life. It’s undeniably an unorthodox film that puts all of its money on crafting impressionistic scenes over a plot driven narrative. It may feature two of film’s most mainstream stars (Penn and Pitt) but by no means is it a mainstream film. It sits comfortably in a world of its own, hoping an open-minded filmgoer will come along and give it a chance. With a film like The Tree of Life and the visionary puzzle it develops into, all you can hope is that someone can give it a chance before they label it as senseless and pretentious. Actually, I wouldn’t be too disappointed if someone labeled it pretentious because in many ways it is. But then again, what film isn’t seen as pretentious when it boldly attempts to capture the essence and questions of life within the time frame of two or so hours? It’s equivalent to trying to stuff a whale into a sardine can, and Malick makes one hell of an effort. Notorious for being a mad scientist behind the camera and in the editing process, Malick once again obliterates any chance of a conventional narrative by focusing The Tree of Life on four, maybe five, periods of time.
The bulk of the film takes place in 1950’s Texas where the O’Briens, a family of five, work their way through the everyday toils of life. The patriarch of the family, Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt), is a driven man who often finds a schism between his duty as a parent and the love he holds for his children. His no-shit attitude finds him placing strict rules and regiments on his children to the point of alienation. Counteracting Mr. O’Brien’s passive-aggressive tendencies is Mrs. O’Brien (Jessica Chastain), a religiously devout woman who forgives her children’s transgressions with a hug and kiss that perpetuates their childhood ambitions and misadventures. The O’Brien’s clan of offspring reaches a maximum of three where their eldest son, Jack, a young boy growing into his teenage skin, watches over his two younger brothers R.L. and Steve. But as we meet Jack and his entrance into puberty, the world is no longer fun and games. After seeing death, pain, evil and tragedy unfold in front of him, Jack begins to wonder why God, a figure that has infiltrated his life with no questions asked, let’s good people suffer and evildoers excel. Inconsistencies in God’s design begin to rapture Jack’s mind.
It’s this notion that assimilates Jack in the direction of his father, a man he despises. See, as the film’s opening monologue suggests, there are two ways through life: nature and grace. Nature is a self-pleasing aspect, one that refuses to see beauty in the life and riches around them. Grace is a force that is forgiving when slighted and is able to appreciate the love and glory shining through everything. As you could probably determine, Mr. O’Brien is nature and Mrs. O’Brien is grace. Jack so desperately wants to be like his mother, who oddly enough has a strong attachment with his younger brother R.L., but he can’t help but slowly turn the way of his father. What ensues is a power struggle as both parents inadvertently undermine one another. As his parents battle for parental power, Jack’s impulses develop into lasting behaviors. Moreover, his questions about God’s immeasurable power begin to express an erasable doubt. Book-ending the study of developing behaviors and philosophical questions aimed at God are three segments that are intermittently touched upon throughout the film. Two such segments feed into one another as they capture the O’Brien’s life after the 1950’s. The first segment is the film’s opening sequence, which revolves around Mrs. O’Brien learning that her son ( R.L.) has passed away.
The details around the death are unknown; we can assume it’s in the seventies. Nonetheless, her faith is shaken to the point that she resents ever giving in to the grace that religion had offered her. Lost and aimless, she walks a cavern of flora with screams of loss bellowing about. She hopes to find reasons as to why her son perished. From there we transition to the present, where an adult Jack (Sean Penn) struggles to reconcile his parent’s conflicting ways and the death of his brother. Following this segment is a grand and polarizing moment: the creation of the universe. Acting as a thematic companion piece to the five decade struggle of the O’Brien’s, the birth of the universe is a scene that will either visually entice you or leave you dumbfounded. Malick makes the film seem more aloof as he brings the creation of the cosmos into an already murky picture. The four time frames, all symbolically bleeding into one another, leads to an ending that will either make you want to decipher Malick’s cryptic images upon the film’s conclusion or scream out in frustration.
I admit that trying to completely understand Malick’s vision is out of my realm. Being the reclusive filmmaker that he is, it’s tough to disseminate what it all means to Malick. But what makes The Tree of Life so fascinating is that its meaning and imagery can be translated on a singular level. Through our own experiences can we dictate what it all amounts to. Granted, this is quite the chore considering Malick’s elusive voice and full-fledged insistence on using images over dialogue. In conjunction with his cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, Malick has concocted a film that is stunning and gorgeous, as each image seems to stir a particular emotion that lies dormant in our souls. Although we’re not immediately sure of an image’s meaning, we undoubtedly feel its significance boiling in our gut. What dialogue we do have is expertly delivered by the film’s cast as Chastain and Pitt surrender performances that are deserving of awards attention. Chastain is especially terrific as her glow and driven heart provide the film with its biggest emotional entry point. Raising the stakes for Pitt and Chastain are the terrific child actors who all interact as if they’re brothers off-screen. This is all the more surprising considering the ad-hoc shooting style that Malick enforces.
Yet, through all of the film’s devices, the most thematically rewarding tool is Malick’s use of voice over. It’s a technique he uses to a great extent; it’s powerfully on point. In his previous work, the use of voiceover can reach a high level of annoyance (I’m looking at you The Thin Red Line), but it works wonderfully here as it exposes the characters in a way that only God himself could truly see. It’s almost as if we’re listening in on their prayers. It’s through this example that The Tree of Life, amidst all of its dense musings, is humanistic and intimate. We are provided a glimpse of life on both a macro and micro scale. I wish I could totally make sense of Malick’s perplexing images, but I can’t. What I can tell you is that you’re unlikely to see a film like this anytime soon. Just thinking about the imagery engulfs me with a wave of emotion. I can’t imagine this film will evade my mind anytime soon.