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The Tree of Life

The Tree of Life has been on my radar for a while now. In passing, I’d heard many stories about its uncertain fate and difficult times during the years that Terrence Malik’s latest movie spent in development (recasting the lead role occupied by Heath Ledger, for example). Quite tellingly, despite all of the news that came out about this movie, no one seemed to have any sure idea what exactly it was about. Then the trailer came out, which only cemented the confusion. The only things anyone knew for sure about the film were that it would look gorgeous and it would have an amazing cast. Now, having seen the film for myself… words fail me.

I’ve seen some amazing cinematography in my day, but good lord. The visuals in this movie alone are worth three times the cost of admission. Malik somehow manages to make even the most mundane activity look heavenly. The editing is every bit as breathtaking, very nicely pacing the film’s many wonders. All of this adds up to long stretches of time without any dialogue (save only for the occasional voice-over) that are nonetheless so captivating that a pin drop could be plainly audible in the theater. Additional kudos are due to the score and sound design, both of which add indescribable atmosphere and immersion to the proceedings.

As for what the film is about… well, as you may have predicted by now, that isn’t an easy question to answer. In a strictly narrative sense, I suppose it’s the story of Jack O’Brien, played by Sean Penn in roughly ten minutes of screen time and remarkable young Hunter McCracken through most of the film. The plot moves in a non-linear fashion, telling the story of Jack’s upbringing with two younger brothers and his parents, played by Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain (the parents are never given names. Let’s call them “Mother” and “Father.”).

Still, the premise in this film is wholly secondary. I’ll put it to you this way: Early on, we see the family receive word that one of Jack’s brothers has died. We’re never given any explanation as to how or where the brother died because as far as the movie’s concerned, that isn’t important. The important thing is that this family is now mourning the premature loss of a son, forced to contemplate death, life and theology in the process.

Put simply, this film is not a narrative. This film is a meditation. More than that, it’s a meditation on the very concept of life itself. Quite a broad topic, I know, but Malik tries to examine the subject as deeply as possible through the use of visuals and characters that serve as recurring symbols and metaphors. At least, he does that some of the time. Other times, he’s rather blunt about it.

Perhaps his most direct sequence is a rather lengthy one in the first act, when Malik takes us through the creation of life. All of it. This movie shows us the Big Bang, the formation of the Earth, the development of land masses, the creation of ancient life, the age of the dinosaurs and the meteor that struck 65 million years ago, all in the space of about 20 minutes. It’s all stunningly brought to the screen with more effort and CGI expertise than I would have expected from such an arthouse picture, yet it would be completely boring if there wasn’t a point. Luckily, all of this is shown to us with the implicit question made explicit by the characters’ voice-overs: “WHY?”

Why was the universe created? Why is there life on planet Earth? Why is there death and why do people die young? Why do bad things happen to good people? And perhaps most importantly, there’s the question “Where does God come in?” At every phase of the universe’s creation and in every phase of Jack O’Brien’s life, that question keeps coming up. Where is the point when God intervenes? How does this event fit into the divine plan, if such a plan exists? You’re perfectly welcome to provide your own answers, by the way: This movie isn’t really interested in answering these universal questions, just to ask them in the most creative and enthralling ways possible.

But let’s get back to our “main story,” such as it is. First of all, it’s worth pointing out that this film is set in the 1950s. It had to be, because this story simply couldn’t work in the modern day. With this older setting, we take video games, the internet and cell phones entirely out of the picture. Not only does this give our young characters considerably fewer distractions, but it also makes the world a much larger and scarier place. Really, America was much more dangerous back when seatbelts weren’t mandatory and kids were getting sprayed with DDT. What’s more, modern parents and psychologists have grown hyper-sensitive about mental disorders in kids, treating infants with great care lest they turn out to have ADD or autism or whatever else later in life. I won’t even get started on the aftereffects of Columbine. The point is that the movie simply could not have taken place in the modern day. It had to take place in a more innocent and less enlightened time, back when kids were allowed to get tougher through play-fighting and fathers insisted that their sons call them “sir.”

The movie postulates that there are two ways to go through life: “The Way of Grace” and “The Way of Nature.” The former is based on kindness, compassion, patience and forgiveness for any insult or slight. The latter is all about self-preservation, resorting to whatever greed or violence is necessary to provide for oneself and one’s family. These two opposing viewpoints are symbolized by Mother and Father respectively, as they apply these philosophies toward raising their sons. Based on the descriptions given, you might think that the movie favors Grace over Nature, but that isn’t what happens. In those few scenes when Father is away on a trip, Mother’s method goes totally unchecked and the result is chaos. On those times when Father flies off the handle and Mother can’t stop him, it only results in destruction. Repeatedly, this movie shows that one needs the other and a balance is the only healthy way forward.

The parents are basically portrayed as motherhood and fatherhood incarnate. Chastain, for example, plays a nurturing and soothing woman, so beautiful and optimistic that a disappointed glance from her would be punishment enough. Pitt, meanwhile, plays a strict disciplinarian who strives to toughen his sons physically and emotionally. They both love their sons deeply, though in those imbalanced times I was talking about earlier, Mother seems overindulgent and Father is borderline abusive. Additionally, it’s worth noting that though Mother and Father were both written to be nothing more than a mother and a father, Chastain and Pitt both get a few moments and drop some subtle emotional hints that the characters are actually deeper than that. Personally, I’m of the opinion that we only see these characters as parents because we’re seeing them through Jack’s eyes.

Yes, it always comes back to Jack. The entire through-line of the movie is about how our protagonist deals with his bipolar upbringing. There’s always the question of whether he’s more like his mom or his dad and which path he really wants to take, if either. This raises the implicit question of what else may possibly affect a child as he goes through life, such as peer pressure, the surrounding environment, life experiences, genetics, etc. What’s also interesting is that in the background, Jack’s brothers are going through the exact same constant dilemma and their arcs can be glimpsed in quite a few scenes. The brothers are vital to each other because they act as peers, growing by mutual challenge and support. In a way, I think it may be possible that the sons are actually representative of humanity as a whole, fighting amongst each other while trying to figure themselves out and appealing to whichever authority figure/philosophy they like most.

In case it hasn’t already been made clear, this movie isn’t just highbrow, it’s Highbrow. The narrative is fragmented, the story is second to the symbolism and there are long stretches that might easily be considered boring. For my part, there were several times when the only thing keeping me in the theater was the certain knowledge that there was a brain hard at work here. Through every scene, it was patently obvious that Malik was trying to raise several philosophical questions and it was his sheer visual mastery that convinced me to stay seated and patient.

There will be dissertations written about The Tree of Life. The film is a technical masterpiece on every level, with uncountable layers of thematic depth covered in beautiful recurring metaphors and symbols. It’s an extremely challenging film to sit through, and those who aren’t up to it will be out of the theater within ten minutes. Those who are up to the challenge will be amply rewarded with every viewing.

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