Whatever else can be said about the 67-year-old Malick, it’s clear that he insists on charting his own course. With The Tree of Life, he tries for a movie that embraces both the intimate and cosmic, wondering out loud whether there’s any connection between the two.
Not surprisingly, the movie’s intimate scenes involve family. With help from a perfectly cast Brad Pitt, Tree of Life captures the dictatorial authority of a 1950s father better than any movie I’ve seen. On the cosmic side, the movie includes special effects sequences about the creation of the world and the evolution of life, even making room for what appear to be CGI dinosaurs that look as if they’ve wandered in from some wayward summer blockbuster.
In other hands, Tree of Life might have come off as a cockeyed, reeling mess. In Malick’s hands, it becomes something elevated and sorrowful, a movie that captures the mournful sweep of time.
The bulk of the movie revolves around a Texas family in which Pitt plays the patriarch. Through the course of many domestic vignettes set in the 1950s, Pitt’s Mr. O’Brien emerges as a disciplined failure, a father who wants to harden his two sons against the disappointments of an unforgiving world.
The boys’ mother (Jessica Chastain) is softer, bringing hints of grace and relief into the lives of her boys.
It’s important to know that these pivotal characters are not caricatures; they’re shaded and drawn in ways that allow for nuances and gray areas.
Having grown up in the 1950s, I can’t say that Malick offers a comprehensive depiction of the period. He has, however, found an essential truth about it, a sense of longing and pain that must have been dredged from memories of Malick's own Texas youth.
These “memory” segments memorialize the past without nostalgia, as Malick finds a tone that mixes emotion and detachment.
The story, such as it is, begins with the death of one of the O'Brien sons at age 19. Did he die in a war? A car accident? Malick never says. But the young man’s death establishes a mood of grief that hangs over the rest of the movie – not only for this lost son, but also for the great army of the dead that has preceded all of us.
Beautifully played by Hunter McCracken, young Jack – the oldest of the O’Brien sons -- becomes the central figure in the movie's '50s-based scenes. Sean Penn provides counterpoint in scenes set much later. Penn plays Jack as an adult, an architect whose memories invade the brittle modernity of the environments in which he operates.
I can’t say that the segments involving Penn (including a depiction of a reconciling moment in the afterlife) work. And Tree of Life surely can be picked at. Of course, the birth-of-the-universe scenes evoke the chilly grandeur of 2001: A Space Odyssey. It's also possible that Malick’s vision to end all visions isn’t especially well thought-out. I’m not sure that the movie’s two-hour and 18-minute running time couldn’t have been shortened without damage to the overall enterprise.
But it’s best to take The Tree of Life in its strange entirety, to respect its ambitions and cherish its achievements, even as we strain to hear what the characters are saying when they whisper to God, wondering where He is. Quiet thoughts are projected toward an unseen and unresponsive vastness. It’s as if every life amounts to a whispered question that always remains unanswered.
I don’t totally understand Malick’s spirituality. Maybe he doesn’t understand it, either. He sees a world of oppositional forces represented by nature and grace. But whatever drives Malick leads him to a movie that seems to risk everything.
Malick takes the broadest possible aim, yet here's something deeply personal about Tree of Life, a humanity that's reflected in the way we hold the fragments of memory that make up a life. Dad played classical piano. At one point, Dad took a long and mysterious trip. When he departed, it felt to his sons as if a country had been liberated. An incident with the younger O'Brien brother and a BB gun lingers as a source of guilt for Jack. And on and on, snapshots from some recurrent dream.
The only other filmmaker I know who has attempted this kind of somber reflection is another Terrence, British director Terrence Davies. I thought about Davies’ Distant Voices, Still Lives while watching Malick’s more expansive movie. Both are attempts to salvage the past or maybe just to review it as part of some restless search that resists definition, as if we can't help watching our own movie.
With the exception of The New World, I've liked all of Malick's movies. Maybe I’ll see that one again. Perhaps I’ll reconsider. I definitely will see The Tree of Life again – not because I think I’ll figure it out on second viewing, but because I want to re-experience its nobility and sadness.
I understand those who view Malick's efforts as a spectacular form of self-indulgence, but in Tree of Life, I joined him for worship at the church of cinema. Think of Tree of Life as a beautifully somber cathedral with a ceiling that reaches toward infinity and stained glass windows made of memory.
*Terrence Malick's Features: The Tree of Life (2011), The New World (2005), The Thin Red Line (1998), Days of Heaven (1978), and Badlands (1973)