The Tree of Life (2011, dir. Terence Malick)
Starring Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain, Hunter McCracken, Sean Penn
“A film is – or should be – more like music than like fiction. It should be a progression of moods and feelings. The theme, what’s behind the emotion, the meaning, all that comes later.” – Stanley Kubrick
In the first hour of Terence Malick’s The Tree of Life we see the Big Bang, the formation of galaxies, the violent volcanic upheavals of land masses on a young earth, and the evolution of animal life. This massively cosmic scope is sandwiched in the middle of an equally intimate examination of a young boy in smalltown Texas during the 1950s. Malick presents all of this in the form of a prayer, beginning with The Mother (Chastain), a red-haired aging woman who receives a letter that her son has died overseas in the Vietnam War. She must relay this news to The Father (Pitt) and the entire scene is done with as a little dialogue as possible. We also have the surviving eldest son, Jack (Penn), in present day still struggling with childhood anger towards his father and the loss of his brother. All of these plot pieces are purely interpretive though. What I stated in the most obvious, traditional narrative way of describing the film, but much more in happening underneath it all.
The Mother cries out in her prayer towards God, asking why he wasn’t there to save her son. It’s in this moment that Malick chooses to show us the Big Bang, followed by a wordless and brief history of the universe. The film reveals itself not as a narrative feature, but a filmed poem. Its the most intimate of poems, but also epic in that God is character and we trace the life of Jack from birth to adolescence, before jumping to his middle age for the finale. There’s no story to describe here, but there are moods. Malick knows how to communicate with his crew, in particular Emmanuel Lubezki, his cinematographer. Its hard to relate the power of the camera in this film, its is in constant motion and creates the tone.
Despite its three hour run time, I felt the film zoom by due to its constantly moving camera and its perfect editing. And I admit, at the finale of the film, I burst into strong, visceral tears. To pinpoint the cause of this reaction is hard. There’s so much going on in the film that taps into the subconscious that you could end up weeping without even knowing why. I think the crux of the film, the Mother’s grief over the dead son, is incredibly affecting and plays a major part in the denouement of the picture. The Tree of Life is by no means a film that will be enjoyed by all, but it is not meant to be. This is a piece of art, and like all art it will inevitably produce different reactions depending on what the viewer brings to the images. It’s a film everyone should see and then converse with others in the hope of discovering the myriad interpretations and reactions.