Tree of Life is surely one of the most gorgeous movies ever made; every shot in the film is sheer beauty, and almost every moment contains something simply wonderful to look at. Not only is the film a joy to look at, a solid two hours out of its two and a half hour runtime is astonishing, a work of sublime filmmaking narrative.
But it’s that other half hour or so that continues to trouble me, and seems to be the hardest bit to unravel. It takes the form of narrative bookends, with Sean Penn as the grown up version of the boy who is the center of the rest of the film, and I kind of don’t really understand what it’s saying. If there are any bits of the film that feel ‘pretentious,’ it’s these bits, which include surreal scenes of Penn wandering in a desert, chasing after his younger self and Penn on a beach, hugging all the people from his youth, including young versions of his mother and father.
Future viewings may allow me to further unravel these parts, but it only took one viewing to fall in breathless love with the rest of it. The centerpiece of the movie is a stretch that extends from the very beginning of the universe through to the birth of Penn’s character and then focuses mostly on his life as a pre-teen boy in Waco in the 1950s. There’s no strong throughline here, and it’s really a series of vignettes - often without much dialogue - but it’s gorgeous and emotional and honest. Director Terence Malick structures the vignettes perfectly to give character, to tell a slight story and mostly to evoke powerful, primal emotions.
Let’s go back a bit, though. The history of the universe sequence is among the most stunning filmmaking I have ever seen. A long progression of time from the Big Bang through the extinction of the dinosaurs, the sequence is pure poetry, pure cinema. It’s a long special effects sequence, but it’s breath-taking in an old fashioned way, true spectacle. Some of the cosmic views are so wonderful as to choke me up.
The entire history of the universe leads up to the birth of Jack, the eldest of three sons for Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien (Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain). The story then focuses on the formative experiences of Jack’s young life, the moments of joy and sadness, of wonder and fear. The film lingers on boyish enthusiasm and cruelty, and explores the tender and sometimes hurtful dynamics of the O’Brien family.
Jessica Chastain and Hunter McCracken, who besides having an AMAZING name plays young Jack, are the incredible center of this section of the film. Chastain has a beauty that is ethereal and yet sensual, and Malick loves photographing her. The camera lingers on her, admiring every bit of her - her fine red hair, her pale feet playing in a sprinkler, her warm, maternal smile. The film is very much about, among other things, God - the movie’s occasional voice over comes in the form of prayers - and Chastain is cast as the loving, nurturing side of God.
McCracken has no Hollywood phoniness about him. He’s not a precocious child actro whose stage mom is waiting just out of frame, but rather he’s a boy plucked from the 1950s and allowed to run around in front of a camera. At least that’s how he feels, and that’s how all the scenes with children playing feel, not like acting but like life captured on camera. The genius of Malick is the way that he uses these found-feeling moments to subtly craft the story, to slowly clue us in on these characters. McCracken has a lot of difficult moments in the film, and his coming to understand the pain and loss and meanness of life is just as important the transporting moments of play and love, and the kid carries them all. It’s an incredible performance in that it never feels like a performance.
If Chastain is the New Testament God of love, Brad Pitt is the sterner, Old Testament God. Distant, unreadable, as mysteriously given to sudden acts of love as sudden acts of violent discipline, Pitt’s Mr. O’Brien is a father figure from another time, one trying to get his sons to grow up to be men. Where Mrs. O’Brien counsels a way of love and goodness, Mr. O’Brien repeatedly warns the boys that good people get taken advantage of and walked all over. Pitt brings complete physicality to the role, occasionally letting us in to Mr. O’Brien’s head through small gestures or posture changes. Pitt is a great actor, and here he gets to remind us that subtlety and motion can be the actor’s most potent tools.
Motion is a tool of the filmmaker as well; the camera is always moving, always finding something to look at. Every shot becomes an action shot as the camera snakes around, sometimes from a POV, sometimes swinging about, sometimes pushing right up against the kids as they play. The camera captures tiny moments, finding the clues for us. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s previous best work for me was Children of Men, and he brings the urgency and kinetic feeling of that film to boys strapping a frog to a rocket. He also captures moments of indescribable, fleeting beauty as Chastain’s head briefly blocks out the sun or as Brad Pitt’s fingers dance across a church organ keyboard as his son looks on, bored but intrigued. It’s Oscar-winning work.
Malick expertly creates a boyhood world that’s specific to the 50s and Texas but that feels eternal and omnipresent. By not relying on hit songs of the era or pop culture ephemera Malick gets to the center of boyhood. It isn’t about watching Davey Crockett or listening to Elvis (or watching Star Wars and listening to KISS or whatever your ambient culture was when you were 12), it’s about running outside and testing the boundaries of the world and yourself and each other. It’s about hiding from your mom when she calls you to come in, and it’s about sharing strange (and meaningless) secrets with your friends. It’s about monstrous cruelty and about heartbreaking kindness.
And in a lot of ways that’s what the film is about as well. The themes and meanings of the film are encoded directly in what’s happening on screen. There’s no need for lengthy discussions of meaning (which is actually one of my problems with the closing bookend, which feels like an over the top gilding of the lily) when the meaning is clear in the frame. And when the action in the frame seems to be simply plucked from life, the meaning is clear in life.
The Tree of Life as concept repeats in many religions; in Judeo-Christian folklore it’s one of the trees in the Garden of Eden, represented as being different from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. It seems to be no accident that the history of the universe sequence skips from the dinosaurs to the O’Briens, as the home in which they live is the Garden of Eden. And if Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien, who have no given first names, are Adam and Eve, then Jack and his younger brother, the middle child, is Abel. And as Jack gets older and begins rebelling and doing bad and discovering his own anger and insecurities, the family is thrown out of the Garden.
That may seem like a spoiler, but it’s not - Tree of Life is unspoilable because of the simple fact that it’s non-narrative. There’s a story of a sort in the film, but what it’s really about is the emotion and the philosophy, and that’s stuff that can’t be told, only experienced. This is a movie not to be seen but to be lived and felt, and anyone who finds themselves wondering when something will happen is watching the movie in the wrong way. Nothing happens. Everything happens. Understanding that dichotomy is key to enjoying the film. Make no mistake - this is not a movie for everybody. Some people simply aren’t interested in engaging cinema on a serious level, in working with a movie and in being asked to fill in so many blanks and pay so much attention.
Every moment from the creation of the universe to the family leaving the house is perfect (and how many films have THAT sort of a sweep, huh?). While I wasn’t fully on board in the initial bookend - it has some wonderful moments, to be sure - it’s the final bookend that really didn’t work for me. Watching Penn hug Brad Pitt is supposed to be emotional or cathartic, but I felt nothing; the middle section had so expertly taken me on a tour of emotions and reminded me of so many aspects of life and youth, and yet this final section fell flat for me. Maybe the weird stuff on the beach was too cerebral for me, or maybe it’s a gesture that didn’t need making. Whatever the case it’s not enough to sink a truly amazing movie.
I’m not necessarily a huge fan of Terence Malick. I think his best work is great, but am not as transported by his early work as some are. I actively hated The New World. And while I don’t think Tree of Life is an emotionally transcendent experience, it is an awesome work of filmmaking, an incredibly masterful and haunting and beautiful piece. It feels unbelievably personal, and I always believe that truly specific, personal filmmaking alchemically becomes more universal.
I love Tree of Life, with some small reservations. It’s a movie that every serious film lover needs to see, and to see on the big screen - while most of the film is small and personal, the history of the universe stuff is jaw-dropping and epic and bigger and better than any blockbuster this season. This is big art, and it is worth more than one viewing.