The Tree of Life, Terrence Malick's fifth directorial effort, has been described already as a 'tone poem'. There is perhaps no better way of defining it, though I will try at various times throughout this entry. It's less film than symphonic union of music and image. It rises and falls and sweeps through emotions and time, contrasting microcosms with macrocosms and finding intangible comparisons in all that's bound by simple molecules. Malick does not presume to define the outline of his story. He sets his pieces on an infinite stage that traverses all of time and space, and within these largely unnamed characters we glimpse both vague and specific. They are bodies in orbit, pushing and pulling away from one another. They're a family unit, ourselves, our parents, our neighbors, our friends, and yet they are none of these people just as The Tree of Life is and is not as much a movie as a photography exhibition, opera, or anthology of poetry.
Tree of Life is its own entity, but it is one not entirely unfamiliar. It is Fantasia's 'Rite of Spring' blended into a non-sexual Enter the Void mixed withKoyaanisqatsi, Baraka, and any number of Discovery Channel documentaries on the universe in miniature. It's 2001 set in suburbia with biological offspring as the dangerous technological advancements gone haywire. In a double feature it could be paired opposite of Antichrist, with one standing in for hell and the other as heaven. It's the Omnimax movies I went crazy for as a kid queuing up at the Museum of Science and Industry; all nature, all star clusters, all threadbare lawns, open rooms, and empty asphalt. It is church.
As we watch it we must forget traditional narrative, Tree of Life has no time for storytelling conventions. Chronology does not matter in the spirit or the memory, and our understanding of the world is wrapped up with our knowledge of our personal histories. Tree of Life attempts an experimental fiction, a cut-up method with sources pulled from religion, nature, individuality, and Americana. An extensive sequence early on offers no dialogue, no human presence. Within we see a condensed history of time, the origin of life through pulsating jellyfish and rather beautifully rendered dinosaurs. If you can succumb to this sequence, you will be rewarded with frame after frame of incredible imagery and active inspiration. As a sometimes visual artist I found a million excuses to pick up a brush, shot after pristine shot strained with pain, emotional longing, and gorgeous, vibrant, HD color.
When the film isn't dabbling in impressionism (well, not quite as severely), it strings together a childhood for the boys in the O'Brien family. We are introduced to Jack (Sean Penn) as an adult working within an urban landscape of immaculately captured but unquestionably cold glass, concrete, and stone. We get the impression that Jack is unhappy, that he's disillusioned or engaged in an existential crisis, perhaps provoked by an event off screen (the death of his mother?), but the why doesn't matter. Through the cinematic lens of Jack's memory, we are given his formative years in melting flakes and shattered glass. We meet a father (Brad Pitt) who loves but whose dreams have been hampered. He rules with an iron fist; believes in principle and the particular order of things. It's no leap to imagine that he stands in, with his religious convictions and upright piety, for a godlike figure. He constructs the cosmos and Jack is made in his image, for better or worse.
Young Jack (Hunter McCracken) is strong-willed. He wrestles with compulsions towards good and evil, knowing what's right even as he does so much wrong. Jack and his brothers engage in those 'boys will be boys' activities that spring from curiosity but reveal paths towards sociopathy. They dance on the brink, toeing the line between innocence and destruction. Jack's father is the destroyer, his mother (Jessica Chastain) is the creator. She's playfully naive, often depicted as a pushover; a graceful playmate instead of a guardian. She shows them how to find joy, how to revel in a sprint down the block, the bubbles in the bath, or sparklers in the dark. He shows them how to survive the real world, how to punch, how to finish what they've started, how to control the things around them. Together they strike a balance that is part harmony and part constant battle. They may not be drawn in black and white as good and evil, but they are parts of a whole that will, as Jack suggests, always wrestle inside him.
This is a film turned internally. The acting, when it happens, is naturalistic, the characters so organic they seem documented instead of performed. Malick does not want to process your information for you. Instead, he finds all the right scenes with a gentleness and delicate touch that makes the viewer understand that on some level these are personal, that each moment could potentially be the key to a larger narrative thread. If this sounds pretentious, perhaps The Tree of Life is not for you. I would argue, however, that any pretentious element at work in this film is canceled out by way of sincerity. Malick is never anything but sincere. He means the whispers in that narration and he means the rushing water and undulating nebulae with all his little arty heart. I may be a connoisseur of pop artifice, but when a film reaches the way this one does towards establishing a personal connection with the void and in search of itself, I can't judge it on any other merits but its ability to make the same connection with me. It did, and I believe that trumps all.
I saw Tree of Life on Father's Day with two parents who had, for all practical purposes, not a clue who Terrence Malick was. They're no strangers to a certain breed of art house cinema, this much is true, but they never shy away from calling something boring (I still don't think they're totally sold on There Will Be Blood, for example) if it doesn't appeal to them. They loved the film. My Dad even said he'd probably buy it for the cinematography alone, but that it reminded him of people he'd known, of neighborhood kids who never came back from Vietnam. That's why, for all the talk of the inaccessibility of Tree of Life, and for the difficult packaging of its volatile contents, I don't believe the film is one that needs to be recommended with caveats on its potentially preachy incoherence. Its flaws, echoes, and evolutionary navel-gazing are what make it all the more haunting. Its unanswered questions (and breathtaking visuals) are what make it an artwork that will be discussed and viewed for decades to come. Maybe you'll love it, maybe you'll hate it, but you'll talk about it either way. It is what it is, and that's life. You know what they say about life, right? It's not perfect, but it is what you make it. No one can tell you otherwise.
As soon as I post this, M. will see it and roll her eyes. When next we speak, she'll probably make some snarky remark about how I'm easily seduced by cinematography and beautiful objects. I will inevitably concede, maybe a tad bitterly, but, of course, she's correct.