The title of The Tree of Life is a common motif in most world religions–all of life is interconnected. That is why, I suspect, that Terence Malick, in his long-awaited film, attempts to tie the somewhat insignificant-seeming tale of a Texas family in the 1950s to the creation of the universe. The film is certainly not for the average moviegoer–there were walkouts and grumblings during the screening I saw. I’m not certain what it was all about, but I was never bored and frequently transfixed.
The film’s opening dialogue is a voiceover by the mother of the family (Jessica Chastain) distinguishing between the “way of grace and the way of nature.” She is of the way of grace, while her husband (Brad Pitt) is of the way of nature. He will attempt to teach their three sons the notion of survival of the fittest, making them tough. When he over-reacts at the middle child for speaking at the dinner table, she protests, and he tells her that she is always undermining him.
The eldest son, Jack (in a remarkable juvenile performance by Hunter McCracken) rebels against his father, even though he admits he’s more like him than his mother. When Pitt is away on a long business trip Jacks participates in antisocial behavior, like petty vandalism and animal abuse (he straps a frog to a rocket and shoots it into the sky, which I must admit is something that kids that I hung with did when I lived in Texas, although we had the decency to put the amphibian in a small capsule). There’s a great moment when Jack comes across his father working underneath the family car, with only a jack standing between him and mortality. The boy looks at the jack, fantasizes, and moves on, and then in a voiceover says, “Please God. Kill him.”
All of this sounds pretty normal, right? A simple, family drama? Well, early in the film Malick makes either a daring or foolhardy move, depending on your point of view. He embarks on about a twenty-minute history of the universe, starting with the big bang. He takes through the Earth’s volcanic stages, the creation of water, and even a scene involving dinosaurs. Tellingly, that scene involves one dinosaur committing an act of grace toward another dinosaur. It was during this scene I was reminded of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, though Malick’s seemed to have more purpose. All of it is lovingly rendered by the cinematographer, Emmanuel Luzbecki and the five credited editors.
There’s another aspect to the film that doesn’t work so well. Sean Penn appears as the grown-up Jack, working as an architect in a modern city. This is the first time Malick has ever set a film in the modern day, and he seems jumpy, as if he wandered into the ladies’ room by mistake and wants to get out as fast as possible. Sure enough he puts Penn in a dream-like desert surrounding, presumably in some sort of reminiscence about his childhood and the death of his brother (we learn about the death at the outset of the film, but we never know how he dies).
The Penn sequences take the film into an area that I can’t defend. The ending, set on a beach, has all the characters of the film together. It reminded me both of the end of Fellini’s 8 1/2, though without humor, and the beginning of Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories, with Allen’s film-within-a-film ending with all the movie’s characters gathered at a landfill. But that was a parody of pretentious, self-indulgent filmmaking, and for those who claim Malick’s film is just that, well, you may have a point.
But despite these flights of weirdness, I found The Tree of Life enthralling. The scenes of the family are so good, so attentively detailed. I loved Pitt’s performance as the wound-too-tight dad, who dreamed of becoming a musician but ends up adrift in business. The scenes between the boys are spot-on, and richly evoke a time of innocence and danger (they play with BB guns, light sockets, and run into clouds of DDT).
Another motif working through the film is the Book of Job. A church sermon during the film is on that book of the Bible, and Malick opens the film with an epigraph of God’s admonishment to Job: “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation…while the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” What does this all mean? I’m not quite sure, but may be in line with a portion of the Mel Brooks-Carl Reiner bit in “The 2,000-Year-Old Man,” when Brooks tells Reiner how man first started believing in God. I’m paraphrasing: “There was a guy named Phil who was the biggest and meanest guy, and bossed everybody around. Then, one day, Phil was struck by lightning. We realized that there’s something bigger than Phil.”
My grade for The Tree of Life: A-.