There is a critical sport in wrestling with Terrence Malick. Because the director doesn’t do press, and spent nineteen years not making movies, Malick is such an oddball – on top of his films not coming across in classic Hollywood narratives - that reviews often try to engage the man as much as the film. But when you make a film as personal as The Tree of Life, that’s bound to happen. Here, Malick uses a mother (Jessica Chastain) and son (Sean Penn) to delve into the pain of death and life – going so far back as the birth of planet Earth – to understand what it means to be alive. Part of that is coming to understand one’s relationship with the father (Brad Pitt). The easy dismissal is that the film is pretentious, which is just as easy as declaring the film an impenetrable masterpiece. Our review of The Tree of Life on Blu-ray follows after the jump.
The film begins from the perspective of Mrs. O’Brien (Chastain), who briefly recounts her childhood only for the narrative to move to the moment she’s notified of the death of one of her sons. Though it’s never made explicit, he seemed to have died in Vietnam. Her world is shattered and she speaks about the ways of nature versus grace. Then the film switches to the perspective of her son Jack (Penn), now an adult who’s wrestling with something he said that offended his parents. He too has spent a long time grieving for his brother, and then the film recounts the birth of earth and how the planet moved from single-cell organisms to the dinosaurs, and how an asteroid wiped them out.
The main chunk of the film is dedicated to Jack as a child (played by Hunter McCracken) and his relationship with his father (Pitt), mother and younger brother R.L. (Laramie Eppler) – the one who died. He also has a youngest brother in Steve (Tye Sheridan) who flitters in and out of the film. Tree of Life then shows how Jack grows up, with his father a stern disciplinarian who loves classical music, plays the church organ and suggests a number of huge regrets in his life as a working man. Jack experiences life as his sense of good and violence and lust is defined within him.
Yeah, it’s easy to view the film as pretentious, but pretentious not in its real definition (Attempting to impress by affecting greater importance, talent, culture, etc., than is actually possessed) but more in the sense that the film is heady and obtuse. Pretentious is by definition trying to affect airs. And at this point in his career, I don’t buy that Terrence Malick was making this movie to garner awards or get laid. By the nature of trying to unpack man’s (and perhaps his) relationship to his father – and by extension God and the afterlife – may be a bit much for those looking for a movie as defined by Hollywood sensibilities, but that sort of curt dismissal suggests wanting prose over poetry.
To be fair, the film is from a male’s perspective. And I’ve found that a number of men found the film resonant because it is very much about the relationship between men and their father’s where I’ve known a number of women left cold by the movie. But the film is defined by a child’s struggle with their father and the petty arguments that come from having a voice of authority who is contradictory, terrifying, hypocritical and arbitrary. And perhaps that belongs to certain upbringings where the father is the dominant and violent figure. Mrs. O’Brien gets to be loving, but also passive much of the time, and when Mr. O’Brien goes on a long business trip, you can see the boys revel in their sense of freedom, something the mother briefly indulges.
But more than anything the film is about the brief fragments of life that come to define a person’s existence. From the glimpse of a man suffering a seizure, to the moment as children Jack attempts to imitate people walking funny because it’s abnormal and then realizes they might be crippled or drunk, to a terrifying clown at a state fair, to the moment where Jack lets go his sense of morality to destroy things for an audience of peers, or the moment where sexual curiosity sends Jack to break into a neighbor’s house to steal a nightgown, the film is filled with moments of awe, and moments of searing guilt as he learns from his mistakes. The things that cannot be undone that define him as a person that – outside of the perspective of childhood – seem minor and on some level necessary to develop as a human being. In that way The Tree of Life is the most important/affecting film about memory since Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
As a filmmaker, Malick is coming from a place where he is not bound by the rules of modern cinema, and though it might be fair to say his work here is influenced by filmmakers like Yasujirō Ozu, Andrei Tarkovsky and Robert Bresson, The Tree of Life is singular and as such it’s hard to wrap around because the decision-making process doesn’t have the same corollaries as say – The Green Lantern. That sort of film has a much simpler “does it work” comparison point. Perhaps the clown or the shots of people in the attic of the house don’t work in the same way other elements of the film do – perhaps having a creepy state fair clown is too on the nose, or breaks up the internal rhythms of the piece. But with a film like this it’s about what the viewer brings to it as much as it is about what’s on screen.
This is a reflective work, and so one’s own nostalgia comes into play in how you interpret it. As a viewer my own conflicted relationship with my father, and my moments of brotherly love and brotherly violence come into play as much as what’s on screen, and I think that’s how a film like this is meant to be interpreted. I’ve now seen the film four times, but the first viewing felt like a flood of information and imagery that I needed a second viewing to parse in any way as a critic. Now I’ve seen the film four times I understand how it is shaped, but the film is still filled with a sense of mystery and wonder. Like profound art, there is a shape and a sensibility guiding it, but there is also a binary truth to its impact. This hits me hard.
The ending is probably the most problematic section of the film as it shows a version of an afterlife where Jack and family are reunited with R.L. but R.L. as a child. There also Malick flashes to a Mexican church with a dead body outside. Here is where the visuals go into obscurity overdrive, and perhaps these are connected to things shot but unconnected to the finished film, or perhaps speak to its maker more than me. Or perhaps he is connecting death in one facet or religion to this vision of an afterlife. This afterlife is a conception that is intentionally awkward – partly because it’s something that the main character can’t conceptualize. It’s a sequence not about what happens, but trying to create a sense of what that peace would be and failing as humans would. And on that level the ending works for me, as the main character is learned enough to have doubts about the role of God and his father in the end. This world would then be the unattainable fantasy, but one that offers little relief or hope.
The Tree of Life Blu-ray is presented in widescreen (1.78:1) and in DTS-HD 7.1 surround. A title card suggests that the film should be watched as possible. A DVD and digital copy are also included. The transfer of the film is immaculate, as is to be expected. The film’s theatrical trailer is included, as is “Exploring The Tree of Life” (30 min.) which lets filmmakers like Christopher Nolan and David Fincher, producers Grant Hill, Bill Pohlad, Dede Gardner, Nicholas Gonda and Sarah Green, visual effects consultant Douglas Trumbull, production designer Jack Fisk, costume designer Jacqueline West, Senior Visual Effects Supervisor Dan Glass, editor Mark Yoshikawa, composer Alexandre Desplat and stars Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain, Hunter McCracken, Laramie Eppler and Tye Sheridan talk about the movie and Malick. Like the film, they share meditative thoughts.