The Tree of Life: A Film of Ambitious Visual Poetry
Renowned filmmaker Terrence Malick's fifth film in four decades is his best to date.
Being a fan of epic films, monumental directors and theology, The Tree of Life appeared to be a perfect storm of bliss for theatergoers like me.
I first became curious about director Terrence Malick when I saw The Thin Red Line (1998) in college and left the theater scratching my head, wondering if what I had just seen was actually a film about World War II.
Expecting Saving Private Ryan, instead I got a cross between a nature program and a philosophy seminar.
But after seeing Days of Heaven (1978), a parable of Midwest fieldworkers at the height of the Industrial Revolution painted in sweeping Biblical imagery, my status as a Malick fan became solidified. What other filmmaker would draw upon the obscure wife/sister motif found in the Old Testament narratives of Abraham and Isaac?
Viewing a Malick film is a grand, organic, thought-provoking event, and The Tree of Life is no exception. In fact, it is by far his most ambitious and accomplished achievement to date. For me, it was like watching the Bible unfold as a visual poem.
The loose framing story hangs over the father, mother and three sons of the O'Brien family in small town Texas in the 1950s, with focus on the oldest son, Jack.
The father, played by Brad Pitt, disciplines his sons while sermonizing on the virtues of the self-made man ("You have control of your own destiny"), only later to regret having made them feel shame.
Jessica Chastain, in her portrayal as the boys' earthy and nurturing mother, incites the jealousy of her husband because of the bond she has with her children, and you believe her when she tells them, "I love you all the same."
Jack, in an impressive turn by Hunter McCracken, grapples with his budding adolescent sinfulness while his father is away, at one point echoing Paul's words in Romans 7:15: "What I want to do I can't do; I do what I hate."
So how is the film about much, much more than the simple lives of these family members? Our first hint comes from the opening quote, God's cosmic challenge to Job: "Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?"
With cuts to nature scenes that would fit well in BBC's Planet Earth series, as well as NOVA-esque shots of outer space, it's difficult to describe precisely how Malick uses the universal dynamics of small town relationships as a vehicle to explore life's biggest questions on the largest scale possible.
Whispered voiceovers from multiple characters fuel the film's emotional engines.
At the death of a child, the mother asks, "What did you gain?" borrowing language typical of Psalms of lament.
And, like the Psalms, it is difficult to know who is being addressed in the whispers. God? A deceased family member? The speaker herself?
Ultimately, a theme arises, summarized by the son's query to God, "Where do you live?"
The answer is in every frame, packed full of spiritual symbols of whiteness, wind, water and sunlight, as well as trinitarian mother-father-brother relationships, flawed in their earthly manifestations but idyllic in the film's final paradisiacal sequences.
The Tree of Life is not a cotton candy blockbuster to be enjoyed during a mindless summer afternoon. But I strongly urge viewers to catch it in a select theater before it leaves the big screen. Even the biggest plasma screen won't do it justice.
The finest work of one of the finest filmmakers alive is worth far more than a spot on a Netflix queue, and cinephiles of all stripes will want to see it so they're not in the dark when the next film awards season rolls around.
The Tree of Life is currently playing at the Manor Theatre in Squirrel Hill.