Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life hits theaters this week – nationwide in the U.S. – and it’s a rare chance to see a classic in its first run.
The media-shy Malick is a mysterious force in the film world, his output totaling only five movies over forty years. He doesn’t do interviews and the last known photo of him dates back to 1997.
A one-time philosophy professor at MIT, Malick is a singular cinematic auteur. His films, Badlands, Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line and The New World, range in quality from great to greater but have garnered only two Oscar nominations and no wins. His latest is The Tree of Life, this year’s Palme d’Or winner and a sure-fire bet for Oscar nods next spring.
The eldest of three brothers growing up in the Mid-West in the 1950’s, Malick hasn’t labeled his new film autobiographical, albeit parallels to his personal past are unmistakable. It’s a moot point anyway because as with his other movies, The Tree of Life is a poetic bonding of character, theme and imagery, less concerned with narrative drive. Brad Pitt plays the father of three boys and husband to newcomer Jessica Chastain. A frustrated musician and inventor, he has turned his back on his dream, scraping out a living in a menial job to support his family. His frustration is visited most severely upon his sons, his eldest, Jack, in particular. On the cusp of adolescence, a vengeful anger is awoken in the boy by his father’s fury. The father’s tough love for his sons is meant to inure them to the challenges of an unforgiving world. He loves his family and wants desperately to ensure an easier life for them the only way he knows how, through discipline and punishment.
The furious father is an archetype commonly found in literature dating back to antiquity. But there are specifics in Pitt’s performance and the character itself that add dimension beyond the archetype: his passion for music, his organ playing at the local church, his devotion to his family. Where the father is nature, the mother is grace. She is patient, kind, caring and light. Jessica Chastain is radiant as the long-suffering and forgiving matriarch, building a strong bond with the three boys, playing in the grass, reading, embracing and comforting.
First-time actor, Hunter McCracken portrays Jack, the troubled pre-teen who must find a way to cope with his hatred for his father; who must eventually find forgiveness. McCracken, as with everyone in the cast, delivers an utterly convincing and natural portrayal. The three boys were told to wear their own clothes for wardrobe. Such naturalistic details, along with Manny Lubezki’s exclusive use of natural light, make The Tree of Life play like its own brand of poetic realism. Sean Penn plays Jack as a man in present day. He moves through city towers, atriums, escalators, boardrooms, all the time wondering how he lost his brother, who died in childhood, and will they be reunited in the after-life?
Most of the dialogue in The Tree of Life is voiceover, whispered in a way that puts you in the character’s head. We hear their muttered thoughts and see what they see.
There are wordless stretches of montage and breathtaking beauty as Malick shows us the universe, star nurseries and quasars over classical compositions by Bach, Smetana and a stirring montage to Dvorak’s New World Symphony.
The The Tree of Life is not a difficult movie, merely unconventional. Imagine for a moment that narrative does not have to be the driving force behind a story. People accept it in literature, they accept non-representational painting, but the moment a narrative filmmaker focuses on theme it seems he’s either a madman or an artist.
In The Thin Red Line, Malick explored the role of violence in nature, an integral part of existence that is not to be judged but accepted simply as part of life. In The New World he showed us two worlds diametrically opposed – the civilized world and the natural world, each with their magnificent cathedrals, some of tree limbs, some of stone, both housing mankind, savage and civilized, sharing in common their ruthlessness, desperation and heartbreak. The Tree of Life begins with a quote from Job and proceeds to tell the story of a family who suffers an unthinkable tragedy. Theme is stated early in voiceover: Grace vs. Nature, alternative paths to deal with life’s injustices.
The movie explores this dichotomy in the relationship between the cosmos and the birth of our planet. In the heavens there is grace, on earth there is the violence of volcanoes and asteroid strikes; the fight for survival among the lowest creatures, the fight for survival among higher creatures. And finally nature’s apotheosis: man. These thematic elements put the domestic drama in a context that appears both trivial and eternal. We are born into the world in our base nature. We can aspire and achieve through struggle both modest and grand, and through our struggles we may acquire grace.
As sublime as it is, The Tree of Life is not without its shortcomings. With a running time of 138 minutes, it’s probably about 15 minutes too long, the middle section spinning its wheels a bit. But saying that is like Emperor Joseph II telling Mozart, “Too many notes.” They say The Tree of Life is not a movie for the masses. Why not? It could be, if audiences are willing to open their minds to something that doesn’t employ the same old three-act structure with character arcs and pithy dialogue.
Not all movies have to come vacuum-wrapped in plastic. Not all meals have to come through a car window. Here is a feast prepared by a master chef. Indulge.
4 ***** (out of four)