“The Tree of Life” introduces a character pondering the meaning of existence as he searches for the answers to the universe’s most perplexing questions. Undeniably impressive, it’s a film that will have viewers posing questions as well, just not the ones its director may have intended.
For what Terrence Malick’s complex, extraordinarily ambitious and years-in-the-making new feature unintentionally does is makes people ask what they want out of cinema. Are you looking for serious philosophizing, fluid filmmaking and stunning images? Or are satisfying drama and deep emotional connection what draws you in? Ideally you would have both, but that is not the case here.
“Tree of Life,” which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, turns out to have the defects of its considerable virtues. Written and directed by Malick, it’s a kind of ultimate American art film, a prolonged meditation on significant issues that is light on conventional narration and dialogue and heavy on voice-over appeals to a higher power. The story opens with a confrontational quote from the Book of Job (“Where were you when I laid the foundations of the Earth?”) and is frequently punctuated by lines like “Who are we to you?” and “Always you are calling me.”
This colloquy has the advantage of being accompanied by a carefully selected, largely choral soundtrack (snatches of Bach, Couperin, Mozart, Mahler, Smetana, Gorecki, Respighi, Holst and others) and images of extraordinary beauty luminously photographed by the four-time Oscar-nominated cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. “Tree of Life” is rife with surpassing visuals, whether it be natural phenomena like fiery volcanoes and raging waters or cosmological shots worked on in collaboration with effects supervisor Dan Glass and consultant Douglas Trumbull.
But the truth is, unless someone tells you that you are watching, for instance, what is supposed to be the formation of the universe or the day in the distant future when the sun becomes a white dwarf, there is no way to know exactly what you are seeing. It is, unfortunately, characteristic of this meditative and elliptical film that it is simply not possible for rank-and-file viewers to know as much about it as Malick does. It’s hard to think of another film made on this scale that is as private and personal as “Tree of Life” feels.
If this is true of the film’s astral projections, it is equally so when it comes to its dramatic sections. These star Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain as parents to three preteen boys in Waco, Texas, in the 1950s. The oldest, Jack, grows up to be an architect (played by Sean Penn) who appears surprisingly briefly and always in the context of struggling with God, his parents and the death of his brother R.L., an event that starts the film’s drama.
Even if you don’t know that Malick grew up in Texas, it is difficult not to watch these sections, shot in the Austin suburb of Smithville, without feeling that this is in part a memory piece. The filmmaker seems to see and feel things in these images and situations (for instance, the shaved back of one brother’s head) that we do not.
The voice-over that sets the tone for the family story deals with the notion that there are “two ways through life, the way of nature and the way of grace,” the former represented by Jack’s father, the latter by his mother. “Nature is willful, it only wants to please itself, to have its own way.” Grace, on the other hand, “is smiling through all things,” believing “the only way to be happy is to love.” It concludes with a melancholic, “Father, mother, always you wrestle inside me.”
Though it took the production a year of looking at more than 10,000 boys before selecting the three non-professionals (Hunter McCracken, Laramie Eppler and Tye Sheridan) to play the brothers, the heavy lifting in this section is done by Pitt and Chastain.
Pitt, in one of his most effective performances, plays the father as a bull-necked disciplinarian who believes “it takes fierce will to get ahead in this world.” He is a frustrated, aggrieved man who loves his family but sometimes allows his powerful temper to get the best of him. For her part, Chastain, a lovely and gifted young actress, beautifully handles what is an almost wordless portrayal of nurturing love.
While “Tree of Life” is observational in tone and doesn’t have a plot in a conventional sense, much of what story it has features the three rambunctious boys, especially Jack, fighting against their authoritarian dad. Though heartfelt and well-acted — and with impeccable production design by Jack Fisk — this is quite a familiar story (“East of Eden” comes immediately to mind), and the director’s opaque, distancing style almost ensures that it will be less involving than it wants to be.
Malick’s intention is to use style and skill to imbue the ordinary with significance, to elevate this small-scale, single-family drama by interweaving it with cosmic preoccupations and the older Jack’s soul-searching. While Malick’s great ability holds us for a time, it is finally not enough to compensate for a lack of dramatic involvement — those eschatological quandaries tend to overwhelm the story.
“The Tree of Life,” its enormous advantages notwithstanding, ends up a film that demands to be admired but cannot be easily embraced.