Silver Screen: The Tree of Life *****
The Tree of Life, Terrence Malick’s latest, is easily the best film of the decade so far, and very possibly the best film of the new millennium. It’s a stunning, deeply engrossing movie that manages to engage life at the absolute extremes of the microcosm and the macrocosm. The film deftly shifts focus between the magnitude of the creation of the universe and on the daily life of one family as seen through the eyes of a young boy. That more conventional and linear story is itself a series of beautiful fragments, more like lines in a poem than the narrative-driving sentences in a novel, and it’s tempting at first to call these moments glimpses of the everyday and the mundane. But one of the central notions of the movie is that these moments are in fact not mundane at all, that the essence of life is a series of tiny interactions inlaid in another series of tiny interactions, almost infinite, which in total make up the broad continuum of existence. It’s not just that Malick is equally interested in an atom, a blade of grass, a person, a thunderstorm, and the emergence of a new galaxy-- it’s that he doesn’t draw any distinctions between them.
The Tree of Life opens with a prologue. Mister O’Brien (Brad Pitt) and his wife (Jessica Chastain) learn of the death of their son, presumably killed in Vietnam. The film then makes its most audacious move-- perhaps one of the most audacious moves in all of cinema-- and jumps backwards, not to the birth of the fallen son or even the grieving parents’ early encounters, but to the beginning of time itself. For the next fifteen or so minutes, a stretch of film entirely without dialogue, Malick attempts to show the formation of the universe in a series of hypnotizing images: darkness, then light. Infinite space, explosions of color, intermingling gasses. Black rock, roiling lava. Molecules and atoms in extreme flux. It’s beautiful but perplexing until something like the recognizable story of life comes into focus as eons race forward and we see the first stirrings of sentience in primordial ooze. (Yes, Malick actually films primordial ooze.) The moment when a dinosaur arrives onscreen could easily be ridiculous, but it’s not. It’s captivating as Malick swiftly traces the path of evolution.
The story that began with the tearful meeting of the grieving mother and father picks back up at the tail end of the origin-of-life sequence with the birth of young Jack (played as a child by Hunter McCracken), whose earliest days are played out in a series of memory fragments. Baby Jack is fascinated by the flapping of a curtain in the wind, the texture of grass, his mother’s hair. Coming on the heels of the stunning universe-in-fifteen-minutes sequence, these next few scenes are even more amazing as Malick, having now dwelled in relative abstraction for a half hour, manages to recreate the mystified perspective of a young child through a series of disconnected scenes that gradually gain cohesion until we’re seeing a more familiar world through the eyes of a six- or seven year-old Jack, at which point the family story takes hold.
Jack is one of three brothers. He develops a somewhat contentious relationship with his middle brother, a more sensitive artistic type than himself, as they reign over the neighborhood among a gaggle of other young boys. But the family’s demeanor is set by Pitt, playing a mercurial father, a frustrated musician and inventor who toils at a mid-level job he sees as beneath him. Jack’s relationship with his father is increasingly contentious, but Malick’s portrait of Mister O’Brien is complex. We see him pleasantly interacting with African American farmers in 1950s Waco, Texas, at ease in the way of a man without prejudice, and later witness his attempt to save a young boy who sinks to the bottom of a swimming pool. But as Jack gets older, he’s increasingly aware of his father’s rages, which manifest themselves as fits of aggressive parenting-- boxing lessons, barked commands, stern punishments-- and clashes with Mrs. O’Brien, who remains a kind of saintly, ethereal presence through. (Speaking of audacity: Chastain is the centerpiece of one of the movie’s forays into magical realism, and it’s a scene, not unlike the polarizing group singalong in P.T. Anderson’s Magnolia, that’s so odd and breathtaking it threatens to tip into silliness, but never does.)
Sean Penn plays Jack as an adult in a series of flash-forwards, sitting in a bright, window-lined office and recalling his past. Penn receives little screentime and less dialogue. These scenes help tie the mosaic of childhood memories together until the final, abstract sequence, which brings a conclusion to the movie without really tying anything together. If The Tree of Life has a misstep-- and I’m not confident saying that it does-- it’s this finale, which is not too open-ended so much as visually uninspired compared to the rest of the movie’s images. As with the rest of the film, it’s more something to ponder than to understand, yet it’s more stubbornly elusive and vaguely neo-spiritual in a way the rest of the movie resists, even in the moments when the screen is dominated by a mass of seething yellow light while voiceover narrative incorporates Bible verses into musings on the nature of existence.
The Tree of Life is an extremely challenging film, staggeringly ambitious, yet it doesn’t resist interpretation. Malick is a pure filmmaker who prefers to speak with images rather than dialogue, but once you give yourself over to his meditative pacing, painterly sense of composition, and choreographer’s eye for movement, it’s as engrossing and rewarding an experience as you’re likely to have watching a movie.