How to begin to talk about The Tree of Life? Well, for starters, it’s not reclusive director Terrence Malick’s best film. It’s an oddly structured film, one that is too long and that, at times, relies too heavily on symbolism. At times it plays like a National Geographic program, and other times it’s another Koyaanisqatsi. And for a good middle section – about 90 minutes of its 138 total – it’s pure magic.
Plot is difficult in this one. Mr. and Mrs O’Brien (Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain) are the parents of three boys in a gorgeously detailed rendering of 1950s suburban America. Sean Penn is Jack, their oldest son, now grown up some years later. Pitt plays his character as though he has a broken jaw (full on bulldog) and Penn spends most of his role staring longingly and vacantly into space. While Penn’s acting talents are wasted, or at least unnecessary in the film, Pitt and Chastain, particularly Chastain, really pull it off as husband and wife and parents. She’s brilliant to watch in this film – carefree, luminous.
The structure of the film is as follows: Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien learn that one of their sons has died. Flash WAY WAY back in time to the creation of life on earth, through the rise and demise of the dinosaurs, and back up to 1950s present-day. Then cross-cut between modern times (with Jack) and Jack’s childhood.
The “creation of life” segment is long, plotless and beautiful. But it’s too long. The most interesting bit of this film is the parent’s interaction with Jack. Mr. O’Brien oscillates between stern, almost draconian father, and loving playmate. Mrs. O’Brien is, as mentioned before, carefree and loving. He sums up much of the attitude of the sequence when, during a fight, he tells her “You turned them against me.”
What makes this middle section work so well is not only the aforementioned performances, but also Malick’s insistence on the little things of life and childhood. It’s a grand, nostalgic, and timelessly accurate look at the angst and freedom of youth. Small things become huge: attaching a frog to a firecracker. Huge things become small: future goals; becoming a man.
Malick’s camera and editing, both of which must have been tireless/some work, also play a huge role in this “storytelling” (in “” because it’s more like emotion-telling). I can count the cuts on action on one hand. Much of this is jump cuts, rhythmic edits, the kind that are impossible to teach or describe and must be felt. I’m sure there’s a lot of trial and error that goes into the process. At times the music and sound drive the cuts (simply: cut on a beat) and other times it’s the opposite (simply: a cut occurs and the music swells). The music by the brilliant Alexandre Desplat is swelling, natural and circular. Things become a dance, and, despite being a film that centers around a death, it’s really a celebration of life – even when life deals a rough hand.
This is also a film about spaces and textures; architecture and material. Malick seems to be fascinated with our smallness in an overwhelming world and he indicates this with cuts to high ceilings, glass buildings, open fields. The feeling of a thin curtain or soap bubbles on a child’s face is another of his pleasures. He’s trying to relate the whole of experience, the understated moments, whether they contribute to a greater plot or not.
And the camera – constantly whirling and moving. Sometimes there’s a reframe so that the sun can peek through the trees (is it any accident that the sun is constantly in frame?). Sometimes it’s to see both sides of a person’s face and register the emotion that way.
There’s an axiom in filmmaking that the profile shot often psychologically implies something hidden, a lack of information. Malick understands this, but wants to show both this hidden information and all information at the same time. It’s an oxymoron, but by continuously introducing a character (particularly Mr. O’Brien) in profile and then, through camera movement and often jump cuts, getting to the other side of their face, he accomplishes both. It’s not a new technique (nothing new about panning or dollying to show the same person in profile on either side), but Malick makes it fresh by having this form match the content: Mr. O’Brien is a man who hides and is open at the same time. He’s a contradiction, and the camera shows us that.
Parts of this film remind me of Aronofsky’s The Fountain, a film which I disliked. Both have their shortcomings, but both strive to accomplish the same thing. While Malick’s film has its pretensions it generally lacks them, making it far more successful than the Aronofsky film. Where Aronofsky relied on speeches (fine for many films…not for that one…and they’re poorly written) and emotional platitudes, Malick relies on cinematic language.
One of the major failures in The Tree of Life is the ending, where Malick seems to represent heaven via a lot of people – dead, alive, past, present – walking together on a beach. Young Jack meets old Jack. Mr. O’Brien reunites with his deceased son. It’s overlong and feels heavy-handed. I’ve already gotten this message at this point.
Beyond that it’s a pretty absurd interpretation of heaven (or maybe “the afterlife” is more accurate). Where are they walking to? Aren’t they going to be bothered by the fact that their socks and pant-cuffs are now soaked? Why are there so few people? It’s weird and forced – though it does lead to more gorgeous photography.
I wish The Tree of Life was about 20-30 minutes shorter. It may well have been a masterwork of its own sort.