I would dare to say that Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life is like no other film you have seen or will see in years. It tries to encompass all the mysteries of the universe and yet focuses, like a microscope, on one suburban family in the 1950s. Their life is shown beautifully, through images that make up Jack (Hunter McCracken), the oldest boy’s, memory. There is no concrete plot, but we are not lost, confused or wondering what the point of all these images are. It’s shown how most people would look back and remember their own childhood, even if it was not as idealistic as young Jack’s.
In the beginning of the film, we are shown images of Jack in the present as a successful middle aged man (Sean Penn), mixed with the memories of the tragic death of one of his brothers. We are shown the contrasting reactions from his mother (Jessica Chastain) and father (Brad Pitt), the typical comforts and unhelpful words of neighbors, “Life goes on. At least you still have the other two.” We see the wind billowing thin white curtains, the sunlight through a tree, empty rooms featuring a perfect artifact from a common home of the period. Each shot is completely different from the last, yet continuity is achieved.
Then the film shows beautifully organic masses, meant to portray the creation of the universe. This feels both calm and incredibly intense at the same time. We watch computer generated cosmos open up, lava flow over the earth, even a few dinosaurs are shown. It is very much like a combination of 2001: A Space Odysey and The Rite of Spring in Fantasia, only in breath taking high definition.
Throughout the film, you will hear voices, sometimes whispering. Usually it is young Jack, wondering out loud in a bit of an abstract prayer to God, “I want to know what you are. Why should I be good? When You aren’t.” Other times it is the voice of his mother, usually with some subtle advice on life, and all its complexities, “Help each other. Love everyone. Every leaf. Every ray of light. Forgive.” The film is better enjoyed if you keep an open mind and soak these words in, rather than scoff at their attempt to be profound.
Jack’s childhood is shown from the day he is born until he is a young teen. There is none of the usual narration, that would be too simple. Instead of anything being told to us, we are shown everything. His interactions have very little dialogue, not because it doesn’t happen, but because it is not needed.
Through what we are shown, we understand that his mother is kind, loving and very in tune with nature, whereas his father has a much harder exterior, demanding respect, that chores being done right, and becoming a model of tough manhood for his sons. We see the boys and mother rejoice in freedom while the father is gone and cower together at his outbursts. Generations today might regard Pitt’s character as a villain or an unfit father, but in a typical family from the 1950s, this was very much how most fathers behaved. Jack seems to understand this is just how it is.
The entire film is photographed beautifully, earning the film a nomination for Best Cinematography. It feels so naturally free form, continuing the ideas of the abstract universe this all takes place in. For indoor scenes, there is rarely any lighting other than the sunlight coming in from the windows. This always brings out the natural beauty of these people, and they are rarely given a typical Hollywood style close up. The way the camera captures them makes them look so soulful and real, like you’re looking into an old family album.
Now, I do not think The Tree of Life will entertain everyone, though I believe its nominations for Best Director and Best Picture are well deserved. Some people will be very put off by the non-linear plot, lack of dialogue or how Sean Penn was a big part of the advertising campaign only to be a very small part in the whole film. However, I do encourage everyone to give it a try. Clear your mind, let it open up to everything you see and hear. You might not be able to figure out any mysteries of the universe through The Tree of Life, but then again, it might be a step in the right direction.
“Do you trust in God? Job too was close to the Lord.”
If The Academy is looking to award the film that dares to be existentially artful, the Oscar for Best Picture will go to The Tree of Life.