Review: The Tree of Life
The Tree of Life
It took time for me to be able to even think about writing this review. It took time for me to even figure out my feelings on this movie. Those feelings are incredibly complicated, and still only half formed. I've only seen The Tree of Life once so far, though I would really like to see it again, and maybe several more times, before putting my feelings into words. So take this review with a grain of salt; consider it a report from the field, a work in progress that will only be completed in my own mind over the next several months and multiple viewings.
The Tree of Life is not a simple film, nor is it a straightforward one. It is not a perfect film, either. Yet it is a film of such mammoth scale and such startling ambition that it is hard not to see it as a cinematic masterpiece, even as I struggle to reconcile some of its flaws with its larger successes. The movie opens with a quote from the book of Job, and frames itself around a series of questions posed to a nonresponsive and possibly nonexistent God. Why do bad things happen to good people? Why does God take people from us? Where is he when all of the horrible things that happen in the world occur?
From there, the film seems to attempt to answer these questions by reaching back to the dawn of time itself in a startling, visually arresting and unforgettable sequence that recalls in style and ambition Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (and was not coincidentally developed by Douglas Trumbull, the special effects supervisor on that earlier film, who had been away from Hollywood for 30 years before returning for this film). Also working alongside the brilliant cinematographer Emmanual Lubeski (who worked on Malick's last film, The New World and on Children of Men), Malick develops a series of exalted images of the creation of the universe, the early days of our planet, and the reign of the dinosaurs before tying all of this creation back to humanity, launching forward into the twentieth century to show us the birth of a child. This portion of the film is hauntingly beautiful, aching with significance and demanding to be rewatched. It is a titanic achievement for Malick, and one the rest of the film tries, and often fails, to live up to.
The middle section of the movie is devoted to watching that child grow in mid-'50s Waco, and observing in a non-narrative, almost dream-like series of recollections the way that child, Jack, (played by the superb Hunter McCracken) is torn between the diametrically opposed philosophies of his parents, the autocratic and borderline abusive Father (Brad Pitt, in one of his best performances) and the saint-like, gently loving Mother (Jessica Chastain, who does much with very little spoken dialogue). As his mother explains in voice over, there are two ways through life: The Way of Nature, and The Way of Grace. Malick's work in archetypes may be viewed by some as simply leaving us with broadly-drawn characters; Pitt and Chastain are not multi-dimensional creations, nor are they meant to be. They represent two sides of a spectrum, with their three children being pulled in both directions simultaneously. Sean Penn appears very briefly (in a role clearly edited into almost nonexistence during post-production) as the grown Jack, who wanders in a melancholy stupor through a modern metropolis, still haunted by the suicide of his brother and by the fallout of his parents' personalities.
Malick cannot possibly top the opening hour of the film, though he often tries through the rest of its run-time. Some will call the material in Waco shapeless and lacking in narrative drive, and this is true, though the dream-like quality lends the segment a realism and a feeling of things remembered that a straightforward bildungsroman would have eschewed. And the final act, in which time itself comes to an end and we are left to contemplate eternity, feels comparatively simplistic and even banal, though it remains as beautifully shot as the rest of the film. There are definitive flaws to The Tree of Life, but there is something magnificent about its scope and ambition, which dwarves that of any other film I've seen in years. It's impossible not to see The Tree of Life as a mammoth achievement in filmmaking, and in spite of its flaws, its hard not to see this as setting the standard that every other movie this year will have to live up to. I'm betting most will fail.