Written and Directed by: Terrence Malick
Starring: Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, Jessica Chastain, Hunter McCracken
The instinct is to categorize a film, assign a genre or a succinct descriptor that somehow captures its essence. Terrence Malick’s evocative and controversial fifth film, TheTree of Life, defies all categorization and cannot be simply wrapped up. Since the film’s premier at this year’s Cannes, there has been so much debate as to whether this is the masterwork of a visionary or simply pretentious drivel but when it comes to a film like The Tree of Life such a debate is irrelevant. Malick is a notoriously visual storyteller, images are so central in all of his films that such an experimentally visual film as this is a logical next step in his spare but powerful oeuvre. Here, Malick moves beyond an easily described plot or theme and instead attempts to tackle a concept that entirely defies quick summation.
The Tree of Life, at its most basic, describes the life of a family in Texas during the 1950s, but this plot is drastically non-linear and is intercut with meditations on nature, history and the Universe. Jack (Sean Penn) is a man who works in some sort of office, he seems to be very wealthy and in the few moments he is in the film he seems to be lost within himself. As a boy (played by Hunter McCracken) Jack grew up with two brothers and learned opposing lessons about life from his mother and his father. Jack’s father (Brad Pitt) is a bright and hard-working man who fears the violence and harshness of the world and wants only to steel his boys against pain and failure. Jack’s mother (Jessica Chastain) is a woman who is brimming with love, whose eyes see only beauty in the world and who, at times, seems to melt in the afternoon sun. As an adult, Jack considers his childhood and I have never seen a film capture the intangibility of memory so accurately. Events are unrelated, we see only the most important snippet of a moment before we are whisked away to another time or another place. We are seeing Jack’s life unfold as he remembers it, and just like memory things sometimes appear just a little more perfect or heightened than they perhaps were. And also as in memory, simple moments seem to carry enormous weight, and always there is the sense that these are the moments that formed and informed Jack the man.
The cinematography here is breathtaking. Malick, along with his cinematographer Emanuel Lubezki, attempts to insight a reaction of the senses when dialogue or action are inadequate. A texture, a colour, a lingering image or the way the sun casts through a window all have such a powerful effect on the senses. The images in this film evoke something intangible but powerful. The colours are rich and the natural lighting is so warm and inviting. Grass looks softer than grass could possibly be, the breeze always perfect and the water always warm. The smiles on the children are so genuine and lasting and every loving touch seems enough to heal all wounds.
There has been much talk about the way this film, though deeply spiritual, implies the insignificance of human life on the scale of the whole history of the universe. I feel that although such a consideration is undoubtedly present in the film, it’s hardly the point. As the title suggests, Malick is presenting a meditation on the connection between all life. Jack carries the imprint of both his mother’s endless warmth and love, as well as his father’s tough realism. Lessons here are hard learned and the joys in life are fleeting and simple. The way that Malick allows his plot to unfold is suggestive of a belief that though tragedy and heartbreak will inevitably strike hard and without warning, it’s most important to focus on those moments of unstoppable happiness. Much of the film is composed of a stream of images of everything from architecture to erupting volcanoes, blowing curtains to crashing waves. Malick is presenting the complexity of nature exactly as it is: indescribably beautiful and endlessly confounding.
The Tree of Life is absurdly self-indulgent, and I suspect many people will find it boring or pretentious, but surely it is not intended as a piece of entertainment. This film is an exercise in artistry, and Malick is testing the limits of cinematic storytelling. Instead of simply expanding on a plot or telling the story of growing up in mid-century Texas, Malick is trying to evoke some sense of the human condition; the difficulty of human relationships and the impact we have on those around us. Malick is pondering the connection between life, love and nature and he is suggesting something spiritual or unknowable by presenting the complexities of nature with utmost simplicity. I don’t believe The Tree of Life is the sort of film everyone could enjoy or would even want to bother watching but I suspect that the film is so personal that with regards to Malick himself it is undeniably an enormous success.