I’ve struggled to write about The Tree of Life for more than three years now. As of now, I can’t even fathom how I’m going to finish this review. Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life is a film of immense ambition and humility, attempting no less than to encompass the essence of existence through a string of brief moments in time. These brief moments include the creation of the universe, a Texan family in the 1950s and a dinosaur empathetic to its prey. It’s safe to say that there hasn’t been a mainstream film this vast and profound in vision since Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Kubrick’s film lacked the same emotional and spiritual heft as Malick’s. In the six years since its initial release, The Tree of Life has been consistently heralded by critics and publications as one of the millennium’s strongest films to date. The late great film critic Roger Ebert (a personal inspiration of my own) even included the film in his list of the ten greatest films of all time, submitted for the British Film Institute’s Sight & Sound Poll. Despite its acclaim, The Tree of Life also had its fair share of detractors. One need not look further than its initial showing at the Cannes Film Festival, where it was greeted with waves of walkouts and booing, even if it went on to win the festival’s prestigious Palme d’Or. Clearly, this is a film of great standing, both in its actual content and its cultural impact in the filmmaking world. Every time I rewatch The Tree of Life I am taken aback by its boundless richness and a watershed moment I am experiencing for an art form I love so damn much.
Many filmgoers and critics, including myself, view The Tree of Life as a clear split in Terrence Malick’s career. Up to Tree of Life, Malick had been slowly developing his penchant for flowing imagery, whispery introspection and transcendence. In thirty-eight years, he only produced five films, making each one feel like a monumental event. The Tree of Life was Malick’s greatest event yet and it felt like the ultimate conclusion to what he had been chasing for nearly four decades. As a result, his output increased profusely, having put out four new films in just the past five years, each one more polarizing and unsatisfying than the last. Incoherent, disconnected, distracted and pointless are a few of the adjectives thrown around to describe Malick’s recent work and the lineage of these issues is often traced back to The Tree of Life and the stylistic foundation it established. While I concede that the film contains many of the pitfalls that would go on to plague Malick’s output, the reason The Tree of Life succeeds is because its subject matter warrants its style.
The Tree of Life is in no way a conventional film. Much more so than his previous work, the film unfolds in movements rather than scenes, its five tireless editors pulling together mosaics of image and sound that carry us from shot to shot, from montage to montage, from the beginning of time to the symbolic beach of the afterlife. The Tree of Life is a prime example of how to formulate a non-linear art film, something that Malick had unfortunately forgotten. Under the film’s melodic rambling there is a rock solid structure, contextualizing and providing every moment with purpose. Every film, no matter how unorthodox, should run through a thematic or emotional thread to string together its moments of visual inspiration. In commercial films, the thread may have a more rock and roll beat to it, something that is familiar and easy to follow. On the other hand, in a film like The Tree of Life, the thread is more like experimental jazz, free-flowing into various sequences of improvisation. Nonetheless, both maintain some sort of constant rhythm.
The Tree of Life is obviously a film about big ideas. It’s more a piece of poetry on screen than anything else. But for all its poetry, The Tree of Life is still a film and needs to be dictated by the palpable actions of characters. The film is set up by two major inciting incidents, both of which affect our lead character Jack, creating two linear structures. The first inciting incident is for Young Jack, where a boy unexpectedly drowns at a swimming pool. It is his fall from Eden and the beginning of his path towards disillusionment. The second incident is for Older Jack, which involves the death of his brother. Conversely, this is his trail back to Eden where he comes to terms with the world’s complexities. Out of these two paths arises a common question, why should I be good if God is not? With this question in mind, the film takes the shape of a Hegelian dialectic to embark on its journey. In a dialectic screenplay structure, a thesis and an equally powerful and irreconcilable antithesis are presented. When these two opposing theses are forced into the battle, a sort of synthesis arises where the unification of extreme opposites results in a heightened truth. Traditionally, we view the thesis and the antithesis as good guy and bad guy, but these principles can be applied to mere ideas.
In The Tree of Life, dialectical opposites take in shape in Jack’s father and mother, who represent the conflicting forces of Nature and Grace. Jack’s father, played by Brad Pitt, views the world as violent and destructive. As a result, he is tough and relentless against his children. However, as much as it is done out of love, it rips his children and wife farther away from him. On the other side of the spectrum, Jack’s mother, portrayed brilliantly by Jessica Chastain, aims to instill happiness through her ceaseless affection. But her grace doesn’t work either, as it is powerless in the face of her husband’s brutality and only fosters resentment among her children. In good Hegelian fashion, both theses don’t quite work in the universe. The dialectic of Nature and Grace manifests in Jack, as he confronts issues with hatred, anger and eventually forgiveness. But none of these help him much, as his brother still dies, leaving him alone and isolated him from his parents, his job and God.
While much of the film unfolds from Jack’s perspective, I do not think it’s the sole perspective. In fact, I think we may be misled to think that Jack is in narrative control. Those sequences of creation and dinosaurs are only plausible if the film takes a more omnipotent look. Perhaps, that is how The Tree of Life is able to provide Jack, and consequently us, with comfort and hope. The film suggests that loving and accepting everything is possible as God because He sees everything all at once, how everything has happened, is happening and will happen. The vastness of God’s vision combined with the drama of Earthly realities creates a powerful synthesis, where intense human burdens are simultaneously deeply felt and largely reduced. It from this ultimate perspective that we find catharsis, not in answers but in surrender.
Most of this sounds awfully pretentious and in many accounts that’d be a correct evaluation. One need not look further than Malick’s recent work. But to these eyes, The Tree of Life’s outrageously inflated convictions are what make it so powerful. Malick’s penchant for poetic transcendence perfectly suits the primal vantage of youth, where adults are figuratively and literally giants and the world’s problems seem far too big and magical for us to understand. Jack’s lifelong spiritual confusion and pent-up frustration are far more fertile breeding ground for Emmanuel Lubezki’s sweeping, naturally-lit cinematography than some shitty marriage or midlife crisis. The Tree of Life is a film of contradictions. It is pristine and intellectual in its craft but deeply primal and emotional in intent. It finds humility in its realization of its own insignificance and hubris in its tackling of large questions. These contradictions are necessary for great films, which need healthy senses of primal yearning and ego to achieve any sort of spiritual transcendence. The Tree of Life strikes a perfect balance, creating something as rare as Malick films used to be, a religious film that confronts questions of soul-searching, absolution and forgiveness aptly and seriously. A+