I saw the film over a week ago and I still barely have an idea as to how I should go about writing this review or what shape it will be in when I decide to stop writing. It isn’t that the film is particuarly amazing or particularly poor; just fundamentally different in how it presents information. I’m going to start off by saying I will not refrain from any spoilers because frankly, I’m not sure there are any; there is nothing I could describe that would particularly change a viewer’s experience. There aren’t any twists that warrant uneducated revelation because this is not a narrative film. It is an experimental film.
Have you ever watched the trailer for a film you’ve seen and noticed that the trailer has more visceral power than the film it is advertising? The Tree of Life escapes this peril by focusing less on the specifics and distractions of narrative and more on the emotional power of simple situations. In technical terms this is exhibited through sensational editing with classical music. In literal terms, the film is about feelings that we can all identify with: love, hate, loss, forgiveness, denial, and refutation. It easy to empathize with this film. Many have described the film as an effort to capture all of life; beginning, middle, and end (both in terms of the individual and the cosmic). So it should come as no surprise that the film captures its vast goal in a fast-paced montage of images and sounds–much like a trailer for life itself. Yes, it is safe to say that this an ambitious piece of work.
If you’ve seen the trailer, you have already been exposed to much of the narrative present (although certainly not all of it). Because the film is less about the details of the character’s in the film and more about the universal feelings and experiences that manifest themselves on both the small and larger scale, the film had nothing to hide in its advertisements. The trailer is literally a miniature version of the film, complete with beginning middle and end. This lack of specificity will isolate many viewers who are less acquinted with such nontraditional film making.
I suppose I should actually discuss the film at some point, this is a review after all. The film begins with the death of a son in the family. This is executed in a series of brief, mostly dialogue-free shots. First the mother gets a letter in the mail, then she begins to sob. The father (Brad Pitt) is on an airfield where he is shown receiving a phone call. A sharp cut into the father’s world is audibly produced by the loud airplanes that surround him. The cut from the quiet domestic world of the mother to the loud buzzing is a shock to the viewer that is potentially supposed to emulate the alarm that this news is causing. As the father listens, his face emotionally justifies his speechlessness (Pitt is the highlight of the acting here). Some dialogue is exchanged after a while, but we don’t hear it. First it is blocked by the jet engines, and as the news sinks in, a haunting silence takes its place. The boy may or may not even have a name in the film and we don’t find out where this fits into the chronology until later. And even when we do, that detail seems unimportant. That boy could have been anyone. This ambiguity elevates the emotion from a single tragedy to a universal feeling. It is not the goal of the film to tell the story of this death, or this life, or any life or death in particular. It wants to show the universal nature of what a mother feels in that instance.
But this feeling is not confined to the death of a family member, or even death at all. The film juxtaposes this feeling of loss with the protagonist’s plight of resentment towards his father, whom he despises at times for his harsh discipline. It is as if the death in the family is discipline administered by God. It shows that the same feeling can be derived from both love (of a son) and hate (towards the father). For this reason, the film opens with a divided quote from Job: “Where were you when I laid the foundations… the sun, the moon and the stars.” Like the book of Job, The Tree of Life attempts to explain why bad things happen in a supposedly just world. Malick likely chose to include the second half of the quote to justify his vision of how his vision of the just world exists on a cosmic level as well as a personal level. All of life and existence seems to function in the same realm of morality.
So yes, like 2001: A Space Odyssey, there is a twenty minute film-within-the-film that depicts the origin of humanity. But honestly, outside of physically resembling the Kubrick classic, I don’t see much similarity. Thematically, the films go opposite directions. Kubrick depicted a human undergoing a form of alien enlightenment. Malick depicts divinity and the cosmos in a similar matter and there is a moment of enlightenment, but it comes from personal history and experience, not a superhuman revelation. The cosmos is in the film to expose that the entire universe functions in the same manner as human life, not as a physical explanation to our protagonist or his mother.
The film is bookended by imagery of the universe. The first (and longer of the two scenes) is mesmerizing, even the highlight of the feature. The concluding segment is regrettably flawed. In the first scene, the mother’s voice explains the thesis of the film in a repeated line about choosing to live through “nature” or “grace.” In this sequence, a large dinosaur sees a potential target in a smaller dinosaur. As it approaches, the smaller one notices and acts dead. The larger dinosaur runs over and places its foot on the smaller one’s head. All understanding of evolution concludes that acting under the will of nature, the larger dinosaur should crush the smaller one. Instead, a miracle occurs. The larger one runs away instead. The smaller one stands up and they look at each other. Their eyes meet. And then they go their separate ways. This is forgiveness overcoming evolution. It is the first grasp of humanity. It is the ultimate depiction of grace–much better than the depiction the film runs with in its final moments.
As you can probably guess, a majority of the film is a montage of nostalgic childhood moments in the 1950’s in Waco, Texas. We witness the childhood abuse (or just plain discipline) that Mr. Obrien (Brad Pitt) bestows upon his son Jack (Hunter McCracken). After years of disagreements and many scenes analyzing various relationships and developments in the family, we begin to sympathize and appreciate their dynamic. It is moving that in the moment of refutation, Jack forgives his father by saying, “It is your house, you can kick me out whenever you want to.” Jack, the smaller dinosaur, is looking at his father, thankful to still be there. Then they go their separate ways. He demonstrates grace, despite his father’s many flaws.
The most prevalent flaw of the film is that the grace experienced by Jack is not mirrored in his mother. We spent most of the movie feeling the pain and love of the relationship between Jack and his father. We understand his acceptance. The lack of clarity in the mother’s relationship with the dead son or with God for having taken the dead son breaks the connection between the two. The mother has her revelation and accepts her life as well, but we haven’t experienced it with her, and for the first time in the film, the sense of universal empathy is lost.
At this point, the film returns to its cosmic level. As I have previously stated, this sequence does not hold up as well as the earlier, longer scene. Archways and doves make up much of the imagery before it turns apocalyptic. It is all very beautiful, but feels detached from the rest of the film. When the credits rolled, I couldn’t help but feel underwhelmed by the conclusion. This scene felt like less closure than the moment Jack shares with his father in the garden. Perhaps openness was Malick’s goal. Even so, it didn’t feel full enough at all.
I guess the simple fact is that Malick has a more sincerely optimistic outlook on life than I do. I appreciate the ambition of this film and that his next film is allegedly less narratively driven than even The Tree of Life. I am pleased that such unique work can gain the attention of high profile stars such as Brad Pitt and Ben Affleck and, in turn, a relatively large audience. But it isn’t a film that I can identify with one hundred percent. To me, better interpretations of Job and moral structure can be found in such films as the Coen brothers’ A Serious Man or Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors. I guess you could say I am a cynic.
The Bottom Line: While Malick’s latest is visionary and sympathetic in ways that few films are, its experimental side will turn off some viewers and it has a few thematic issues as well.