Like all of Terrence Malick’s films, The Tree of Life is hyped in such a way that probably terrifies the director into hidden obscurity. Malick, having only made five features in his nearly 40 year career, is film’s answer to J.D. Salinger. He doesn’t do interviews, he doesn’t go to premieres, he doesn’t post on Twitter, he doesn’t pop up on Blu-Ray special features, hell, the guy doesn’t even allow his picture to be taken on his movie sets. He lets his films speak for themselves. Which is fitting, because The Tree of Life, like all of his work, speaks volumes.
I knew absolutely nothing about the plot of The Tree of Life when I saw it, so how is it at all fair to ruin any of that for you here? There are two ways to see The Tree of Life (which, for the record, everyone should): cold, knowing nothing about it, and again, because repeat viewings will be mandatory.
Many people, mostly professional critics and film historians, are going to seriously cash-in on thorough Tree of Life analysis. “What does it all mean” psychobabble and the like. And I suppose this is all right, but I don't believe that is Malick’s intention. I do not think he aims for every audience member to pick and pull and prod at the tiniest details in the film and examine them incessantly. The Tree of Life, more so than Badlands, Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line, and The New World, is a moving poem. You should feel free to study it, and look at it again and again, but endlessly analyzing it will only diminish its purpose. Analysis paralysis, if you will.
To give some sort of context, I suppose the film could be labeled as Malick’s interpretation of the meaning of life, but that seems far too broad and absently-focused for Malick’s interests. (Warning: for the remainder of the paragraph, I’m going to discuss very minimal plot details, feel free to skip ahead.) The Tree of Life, in its most basic form, tells the story of a middle-class Midwestern family and their individual desires to figure out “what it all means.” Jessica Chastain plays the warm, free-loving mother, a stark contrast to her loving but deeply strict husband (Brad Pitt). They have three sons, the oldest of which is just now beginning to question and defy his father’s authoritarian methods. The film intertwines the story of one of the now-grown sons (Sean Penn), but for purposes I won’t reveal.
Remember, that basic, rudimentary plot explanation in no way justifies the enormity of what this film contains, it’s just a tease. But, as is always the case with Malick’s work, the execution of the story is equally as important as the story itself.
It took no less than five editors to fully encapsulate Malick’s distorted, shifting visualization of life, but The Tree of Life, I believe more so than any of Malick’s previous films, is technically flawless. Emmanuel Lubezki deserves the next five Oscars for best cinematography, as he has created the best-looking film in years. Alexandre Desplat seamlessly fuses his string-laced original score with the likes of Brahms and Bedřich Smetana, while production designer Jack Fisk recreates the ‘50s Midwest in a way that is holly believable.
I’d be remised if I didn’t give specific mention to veteran casting director Francine Maisler's contribution to the film. Jessica Chastain, who I’ve never seen before, is impeccable as the film’s lead. She’s the moral backbone, balancing her husband’s sternness with her sons’ youthful joyfulness. When her husband isn’t looking, she runs and plays with her boys like she’s one of them. It’s as if she’s never grown up, and Chastain conveys this in a way that is utterly fascinating to watch.
Can everyone finally give Brad Pitt some respect and realize that his acting talent so wondrously surpasses his celebrity persona? We’re constantly uncertain of what his character in The Tree of Life will do next, which is terrifying and magnetic. Sean Penn is, well, Sean Penn, which is enough said, and the three unknown actors who play the sons all convey that very specific breed of Malick emotion, a feat every working actor should be envious of.
Some will hail The Tree of Life as the century’s first masterpiece, others will dismiss it as philosophical garbage. And, despite the fact that neither of those assertions are accurate, both trains of thought are completely fair. Yes, The Tree of Life is slow, very slow in fact. But slow is not necessarily synonymous with bad. Ingmar Bergman never made a fast film. Neither did Stanley Kubrick. Let me put it this way: you know what Transformers 2, Fast Five and The Hangover Part II have in common? They're all fast-paced films, and they’re all awful.
There are extended, wordless sequences of The Tree of Life that are bound to draw comparison to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, which seems appropriate. Both films were critical revered but widely misunderstood upon their release. One is considered a classic; the other is slowly making its way to those ranks. The Tree of Life is the 2001 of 2011; it’s this generation’s ultimate trip. Good luck finding a better American-made film this year. A