Most movies I see are designed to appeal to the broadest audience possible. They have to. Mainstream films are at the intersection of art and commerce and the best you can hope for on an intellectual level is that the star-studded, effects-laden blockbuster might have some interesting subtext or challenge you in some minor way. But most films keep subtext and challenges to a minimum because after a long week of work or school, the average audience member just wants to enjoy their movie. Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life is not for these audience members. It is slow, ponderous, obtuse, stranger, and bewitching, and it doesn’t always hit its mark. But when so many movies are trying to do the bare minimum possible when it comes to making audiences use their brains, it’s tough to fault Malick for overreaching.
The Tree of Life spans eons, from the dawn of the universe through the time dinosaurs ruled the Earth to the present day and to the end of time. But at its core is a simple, human story about Jack (Sean Penn), a man trying to reconcile his feelings about his aggressive, domineering father (Brad Pitt) and his gentle, spiritual mother (Jessica Chastain). The majority of the film is spent in flashback where we see Jack (Hunter McCracken) as a boy and witness his growing anger at his father. This father-son relationship is juxtaposed against an exploration of the ultimate father-figure, God.
Malick’s film is many things, but it’s not a plot-driven narrative. When a movie starts out with a character narrating the thesis, “There are two ways through life: the way of nature and the way of grace,” don’t go in expecting an average family melodrama. The movie sets up an obvious parallel between the father being the way of nature and the mother being the way of grace and Jack’s struggle to reconcile the two is mirrored by a 40-minute sequence exploring the universe and the early history of the planet. Through the beauty of these images and Malick’s admittedly heavy-handed use of choral chants, we can see that grace and nature are one in the same, but it appears the two have diverged in the present day.
But before we reach 40 minutes in the heavens, the film starts out with the emotional punch that Jack’s brother has died. What seems like the emotional starting point of the film never comes to fruition and one of the key problems with The Tree of Life is that it’s constantly falling away from itself. The movie begins in grief over the loss of Jack’s brother, and we see the grief of the mother and father, but we also see present-day Jack wandering around through a haze. Malick makes heavy use of windows in this opening act as something we can see through, that reflects us, but also works as a barrier.
Then the film goes into celestial mode and leaves almost all of the family stuff behind. We only sense their presence with a few whispered lines of narration regarding abstract notions of faith. When we finally return to Jack’s story and see him as a boy, his story no longer feels important. Everything appears insignificant when compared to the majesty of the universe and Malick sets himself back to square one as he attempts to convince us that the emotional drama of a middle-class Texas family in the 1950s is equal to the grandeur of heavenly bodies and the birth of life on Earth.
The closest relative The Tree of Life has in terms of its scope, its pacing, and its visual wonder is Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. However, it also shares that film’s cold, cerebral tone and its struggle to find humanity in its characters. The Tree of Life has an easier go of it by setting the meat of its story in the confines of a family drama, but that issue is undermined not only by what came before, but how the family drama is presented. The narrative begins strongly enough as we clearly see the dichotomy between the mother and father. More importantly, the father is a balanced character. He’s strict, stern, and overbearing, but you never get the sense that’s he cruel or abusive. When the father speaks about the merits of ruthlessness and ambition when it comes to getting ahead in the world, we understand that the viewpoint comes not from cold-hearted evil, but from a place of human frustration. Pitt understands the role, plays it perfectly, and continues to demonstrate that he’s one of the best and most versatile actors working today.
Unfortunately, as the film wears on and the father-son relationship deteriorates, the conflict begins to feel petty and belittles Malick’s magnum opus. Remember, there’s a clear comparison going on between Jack’s relationship with his father and mankind’s relationship to God. The film even begins with a biblical passage from Job 35:4—
I will answer thee, and thy companions with thee.
Look unto the heavens, and see; and behold the clouds which are higher than thou.
If thou sinnest, what doest thou against him? or if thy transgressions be multiplied, what doest thou unto him?
If thou be righteous, what givest thou him? or what receiveth he of thine hand?
(The quote leaves out the final passage of the verse: “Thy wickedness may hurt a man as thou art; and thy righteousness may profit the son of man.”)
When you see a little kid mad at his daddy, that biblical story begins to once again feel small.
Another major problem in the film is its delivery. As I mentioned before, the story fails to build any momentum in its pacing. It’s not that the film needs to be faster as much as it needs a tighter structure to tie its grandiose ideas together into a cohesive whole. Rather than break the film into distinct acts and have those acts rarely, if ever, reference each other, Malick could have used visual rhyming to better integrate the images of the heavens with the temporal struggles of Jack’s childhood. All of the film is shot and scored so magnificently that I doubt there would be much trouble in blending the separate elements together rather than space them so far apart.
Finally, while Pitt gets to shine (Penn’s role amounts to little more than a cameo of him looking sadly off into the distance), the movie never gives enough characterization to the mother. While it’s clear that the mother and the father are necessary in the household (if it were just the mother, the kids would most likely be hippies), the mother never becomes the transcendent figure the script sets her up to be. Her whispered narration of poetic dialogue eventually becomes corny and ham-fisted and Chastain is at her best early in the film when she has to play the human emotions of a mother who has lost her son.
Malick deserves credit for what he attempts to accomplish even if he doesn’t always hit his mark. There are plenty of interesting and worthwhile concepts floating around The Tree of Life and they’re worthy of thoughtful exploration. But because he never blends the story into fully-formed piece, Malick’s reach exceeds his grasp.