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Film Review: The Tree of Life

The Tree of Life (2011; Directed by Terrence Malick)

Terrence Malick’s almost oppressively beautiful The Tree of Life is quite obviously an extended visual metaphor for the philosophical wonders of human existence, but it feels both unfairly reductive and merely conventional to label it as such. Such a description also undersells the film’s portentous existential artfuckery, which is much less palatable when applied through stilted epigraphic dialogue than through Malick’s awe-inspiring images alone.

Perhaps he meant "Trees", plural...

But my, oh my, are those images awe-inspiring, and my, oh my, are those dialogic epigraphs stilted. Malick offers a story with characters, sure: a vivid, detailed portrait of a 1950s family in Waco, Texas (Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain are the first-name-less parents, surnamed O’Brien, and they have three boys) imparted in something like full-motion snapshots, a cinematic photo album full of casual poetry and upswelling emotion. He also has the adult version of one of the family’s three boys, played by a vacant shell that strongly resembles Sean Penn, amble in a haze of regret through gleaming glass office towers in Houston and occasionally through arid windswept badlands.

But even if the Texas family is the core of the movie, its magnificent cloak of contemplative imagery is modeled for our astonished eyes in the first hour or so (I won’t use the term “act”, as The Tree of Life cannot be bound by conventional narrative terminology of that sort). Malick and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (who surely must take the Oscar in his category if the Academy wants the award to continue meaning anything) show us swirling nebulas, surging waves viewed from underwater, idyllic rivers, precipitous peeks over the brims of waterfalls, billowing ash clouds rising above erupting volcanoes, flocks of birds wheeling and whirling above a cityscape, comingling mitochondria, and a mind-numbing succession of crepuscular rays (if the sun ain’t shining behind and/or through an object , Malick pretty much doesn’t want to film it). Oh, yeah, and the dinosaurs. Can’t forget the dinosaurs. Did I mention there are dinosaurs?

This onslaught of imagery pushes the film into an early experimental groove, but it has something resembling a thematic purpose. Before unleashing this stunning visual feast, Malick checks in with his characters just long enough to impart the weighty information that one of the O’Brien boys has died young and have them react with their own precise species of grief. This grants a tone of cosmic elegy to the abstract passages that follow (but are they really abstract, dealing as they are with the concrete foundations of life and evolution?). These gorgeous images of ordered chaos constitute a eulogy to a boy we haven’t even gotten to know yet, but they also render the awareness and inevitability of mortality as exquisite but unknowable, a beautiful mystery of great and terrifying power.

Having opened his film by visualizing the tiny enormity of death in the context of an immense universe, Malick shows us the elegant poetry of quotidian life for the balance of The Tree of Life’s running time. The Texan family he focuses on constitutes a mixed allegory for the “state of nature / state of grace” dichotomy that he sets up early in the film, as Pitt’s demanding affection and stern masculinity contrasts with Chastain’s ephemeral feminine romanticism. While Pitt is allowed to craft a nuanced man of broad-stroke contradictions (lover of classical music, devout Catholic, physically affectionate father, but also a tyrant in his home who expects obedience and respect in all things), in Chastain’s case, any sense of individual particularity vanishes into softly-lit earth-goddess constructions. She runs barefoot in the grass, strokes butterflies, and in one illustrative moment floats suspended in the air in a recumbent pose, as if luxuriating on a supple, invisible airborne bed of heather like an erstwhile nymph. The father and the mother are not clear-cut representatives of either the state of nature or of grace (and the younger version of the Penn character, played by Hunter McCracken, struggles to find a space in between), but Chastain hoards the lion’s share of both selfish naturalistic freedom and graceful beauty, leaving Pitt to embody the regimented pseudo-grace of organized faith.

For all of his evident mastery of his craft, Malick has a weakness for pat philosophical pablum that undermines the undeniably profound glory of his images. The aforementioned visual orgy of creation and destruction early in the film is underscored by his characters’ forlorn, whispered, overformal entreaties to an absent or unconcerned God (“Brother. Mother. It was they that led me to your door.”), which continue insistently through the film (the Book of Job is referenced clunkily in a sermon, so there’s little doubt as to what trajectory Malick is taking toward the divine here).

This approach is redolent of a pretentious film-school-student art-film angle, although the breadth of Malick’s canvas positively dwarfs such assumptions. But combined with a mawkish coda of the living and the dead, the present and the forgotten, all walking and mingling together on a beach, the effect of these techniques is to defuse the grandiose epiphanies Malick strives for, to hopelessly dilute his presumptive transcendence by running it through the filters of Judeo-Christian theology. The Tree of Life is a majestic and powerful piece of pure sensory filmmaking, but if, in the final analysis, it’s nothing more than a labored revelation about how God is in the details, then what’s the point?

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Categories: Film, Reviews
  1. Mary
    February 7, 2012 at 6:16 pm

    Nice take. Lot of critics have mentioned the sort-of ridiculous dinosaurs but no one has pointed out how unnecessary that last part on the beach really is. I loved the first part with all the images (though could have also done without the portentous, whispered voiceover), and was interested in but not captivated by the family narrative.

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