Terrence Malick, at his best, is bewitching. He casts a spell of deep calm. This is true despite the opening suggestion for The Tree of Life (2011): “For optimal sound reproduction, the producers of this Blu-Ray recommend that you play it loud.” Loud I did play it and they were quite in the right. It is a terrific accomplishment of sight and sound. It ought to have come with another warning: “For optimal viewing, the producers of this Blu-Ray recommend you see it big.” I have now seen all of Terrence Malick’s movies and this is easily the most ambitious. It’s about life and death, the universe and our place in it, God and deep human emotion. What else is there? When you leave this movie, and this is mostly true of the other Malick movies, you walk out to the edge of a sharp cliff and you can see down, far below you lie all other movies. They simply do not compete for ambition, maturity, thoughtfulness, and beauty. It just feels like something completely different.
This is the story of a family. In what looks to be the late 60’s, Mrs. O’Brien (Jessica Chastain) receives a telegram and finds out that one of her sons has been killed. She and Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt) are hit hard by the loss. In the present day, Jack (Sean Penn) is working as an architect in Dallas. He is preoccupied with his past and contemplates life. The universe is born, galaxies formed, planets emerge, and on Earth life is created. Jack is born, brief moments of his early life go by, then his brothers are born and, in their young teenage years, the bulk of the story is told. Mr. O’Brien is tough on his sons R.L. (Laramie Eppler) and Steve (Tye Sheridan), but on the eldest son, Jack (Hunter McCracken), he is too tough. All of his own failings and troubles he takes out on Jack in the thought that he’s getting him ready for life as he knows it to be. As Jack grows older, he has difficulty dealing with his thoughts and emotions about his father, his mother, pain, God, loss, plus all the ordinary things a young boy has to deal with.
I think that the reason I never—but maybe once—thought about this movie being pretentious is that I basically ignore the voice overs. They feel to me to be optional. You can take a dip, listen in, but if you focus too hard, something else will pass you by. That’s what makes The Tree of Life such a great movie. It’s a beautiful film to watch (cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki) as it is to listen to its score (Alexandre Desplat) or soundtrack. Let me underline that, the score and soundtrack is perfect. The story is told as impressionistic. You only get an impression from one shot, whether it’s a tear on Jack’s face or a piece of dialogue, which will only last a moment before it cuts to another shot that might be Jack coming home and Mrs. O’Brien responding to Jack’s hugging or avoiding her.
Cut cut cut cut cut which keeps the energy of the film driving forward, developing your sense of the story and character. A movie is a rapid substitution of one picture for another, slightly different picture that gives the illusion of motion. That’s how The Tree of Life operates. It’s a delightful thing if you can watch it without conscious thought. I understand there are many of you out there—the sort that likes to guess the outcomes of mysteries, for example—that just can’t find the dimmer on their brain to passively enjoy a movie. This is how I watch most movies. I turn down the lights and let the movie impress upon me. I suspect that this is why I enjoy The Tree of Life and To the Wonder (2013) (review) so much. When I can’t turn it off or a movie isn’t immersive enough to force it off, then it’s going to be tough for me to enjoy.
The cosmic interlude, if you haven’t seen the movie, may strike the cynical viewer—and I certainly sympathize—as pretention writ large. Believe me when I tell you, it is astounding. Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) is supposed to have one redeeming quality in the beauty of his planetary waltz. I’m having trouble finding words to describe how far it is surpassed by The Tree of Life. Obviously, that movie is a technical marvel for the time—with roughly twice the budget of The Tree of Life when adjusted for inflation—but the imagination on display during Malick’s sequence is unparalleled. What makes it so great, and I think aloud here, is that it is still imbued with Malick’s maturity and his eye, like he’s capturing the moment without having planned it. Just “here it is.”
I was all set to say “Take that Stanley Kubrick! And that Steven Spielberg!” But what begins as a major ass kicking of Jurassic Park (1993) by Malick’s dinosaurs captured in the wild droops just enough for a moment to give Spielberg the win. The movement was too smooth, the steps weirdly on the wrong vertical plane. It is the first of two errors. The second comes at the end of the film with Chastain cupping and uncapping her hands against the sun. Both moments broke the spell. Up until then, Malick was nowhere to be seen or felt other than in my super-conscience, to give credit to when I felt something awesome. Then, comes a repetition of movement in such quick succession that looked so much like a “cool thing to do” that I was a bit annoyed.
Otherwise the performances were very good. Those boys were astoundingly good. Tye Sheridan, you may not be aware, is the lead in Mud (2013) (review) where he was very good as well—obviously, he had a lot more dialogue in Mud. Hunter McCracken is arguably the lead in this movie and he carries many scenes on his young shoulders. The Tree of Life is something like a mid-point, dialogue-wise, between To the Wonder and a normal movie. There are some scenes in The Tree of Life where you can hear full exchanges, but mostly it is impressionistic, non-explanatory voice-overs and never a full, conventionally constructed scene. That makes it relatively difficult to judge performance levels. Really, Sean Penn just lets his wrinkly face do his acting for him. If, however, we accept the view that evoking a feeling is a sign of a good performance, then everyone did the best work of their lives. Brad Pitt should possibly be given special special mention for, legitimately, giving the best performance of his career as a hard, frustrated, mostly unlikeable man. I haven’t seen Moneyball (2011) yet, but I find it hard to imagine that it was anything with as much depth or range as in this movie.
The Tree of Life was up for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Cinematography at the Academy Awards in 2012. For Best Picture I can imagine that The Artist (2011) hit more heartstrings and faux-nostalgia to make it voter friendly, but Best Director (Michel Hazanavicius for The Artist) and Best Cinematography ( Robert Richardson for Hugo (2011)) are comically wrong. I would have liked to have seen Jessica Chastain rewarded somewhere, but I suppose a nomination for The Help (2011) is something—something like a backhanded compliment, possibly. Perhaps it’s hypocrisy to complain that voters didn’t watch one of the top three movies of the year when I hadn’t seen it until just now, but I imagine that The Tree of Life didn’t receive more accolades than it did because people couldn’t be bothered to watch a movie they thought would be too artsy. It isn’t hard, it isn’t too artsy, it’s just good, accessible modern art.
You really should get this and watch it. Just watch it.