The Tree of Life
Directed by Terrence Malick
Opens May 27
Nature has always been the measure by which Terrence Malick cuts his characters. Within environments that fluctuate between fragile placidity and raging cruelty, glorious magic-hour long shots place his heroes in humbling relief against the overwhelming landscapes they attempt to dominate or reclaim; detailed close-ups of animal and plant life enmesh them in a cosmological chain of violence and beauty.
Now, with newely laureled Palme d’Or winner The Tree of Life, Malick extends this all-encompassing vision into the temporal realm. The film concerns Jack O’Brien (Sean Penn), an architect who recalls his childhood in a 1950s Texas suburb. But into the story Malick introduces—in what for many will be a revelation of Space Odyssey proportions or else an incitement to storm the theater exits—a lengthy quasi-prologue covering the formation of our planet through pullulating astral bodies, erupting volcanoes, boiling oceans, bonding molecules, proliferating sea creatures, and stalking dinosaurs.
Against the immensity of time and its glacial evolutions, just how important are the events of Jack’s life—including the untimely death of a younger brother, the Job-like catastrophe that sparks his quest to understand existence? Malick’s answer is Whitmanesque: Jack (played as a boy by Hunter McCracken) possesses a universe-in-himself, replete with his own immensities and evolutions. These are evoked in a fugue of cascading, fragmentary memories, dreams, and whispered voiceovers that reveal domestic mysteries—Tarkovskian chairs that move by themselves, a slow ascension toward an eerie garret—as well as formative encounters with the wider, harsher world: a peer’s lakeside drowning, a downtown excursion that yields a gawking introduction to drunks and convicts. An Oedipal drama provides the through-line. Jack’s playful mother (Jessica Chastain) stands as the angelic beacon of his carefree infancy; Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt), a frustrated professional and tough-love disciplinarian, bullies an older Jack into fits of anti-social delinquency.
This is but an inkling of the multitudes contained within The Tree of Life (Emmanuel Lubezki’s tactile cinematography, Alexandre Desplat’s soaring classical score, and production designer Jack Fisk’s perfectly conceived Americana, surrealist, and post-modern domiciles can only receive parenthetical mention here). Yet return visits to the sensorium prove the film’s flaws unignorable. Clichés pock its visual tapestry: a child sticks his hand out a car window, dipping it through the air; a field of sunflowers represents heaven. Bildungsroman Jack never truly matches Penn’s grown version since the latter remains a barely glimpsed cipher. And an 8 1/2-inspired coda—featuring the O’Briens and other characters reunited within Jack’s splendiferous mental landscapes in order to acceptingly relinquish the younger brother to God—might have resonated much more profoundly had we gotten to better know this sibling.
Perhaps such imperfections are intrinsic to the majesty of The Tree of Life. For the unabashedly lyrical Malick, the film’s presumably autobiographical details are shockingly raw, and his ability to create rich impressions of youth without sacrificing their painful and exhilarating immediacy constitutes a minor miracle. If some elements—especially the last act catharsis—feel awkward, so be it. Ambition has its price, but the rewards Malick offers are exceedingly deep, bogglingly vast, and truly rare.