By Eric Plaag
As I sat down to write this review of director Terrence Malick’s new film The Tree of Life, my biggest dilemma was that I did not know if I could provide you with an adequate plot summary for this film. After all, that’s what we movie reviewers are supposed to do—boil it all down to a tidy synopsis that will tell you one way or another whether you want to devote your time and your hard-won dollars to hearing what Malick has to say. If I were to condense the action of the story, such as it is, into a single sentence, it might go something like this: The Tree of Life is the story of one afternoon in the deeply anguished mind of Jack (Sean Penn), a fifty-something executive who spends that afternoon at work mulling how his understanding of the past and loss and memories and unspoken words have shaped him and led him to this moment now, a point when his fractured and in many ways unconsummated relationship with a partner stands on the precipice. That’s what happens, I guess, but it’s not what this film is about. To emphasize the point, I should say that Penn appears on screen for less than a quarter of the film’s actual run time, and maybe not even a tenth of that time.
If all of this prevarication about narrative and meaning suggests that Malick’s story is a bit tedious, I promise you that it is not. As those of you who have read my recent review of his first four films know, I am a great admirer of what Malick does with striking images, the internal thoughts of his characters, and his keen understanding of how the power of memory shapes our present and future. But where even a great film like The Thin Red Line was a complex meditation, The Tree of Life is something more like an ecstatic fever dream. For someone who despises much of Malick’s earlier work and regards him as self-indulgent and frequently in the way of his own stories, another journey down this road might sound like a prolonged exercise in masochism. My wife Teresa, for example, has been very patient with my desire to revisit Malick’s oeuvre during the last month. She even threatened me with death if I dared to see this film alone in order to spare myself her ire, even though she anticipated 150 minutes of outright torture in Malick’s hands. After the lights came up, though, and we walked wordlessly, for many minutes, out of the theater and into the street, I finally mustered the emotional calm to ask Teresa what she thought of it. “That’s what going to the movies is supposed to be,” she said quietly. “That was perfection.”
So, what is The Tree of Life about? “There are two ways through life,” a voiceover from Jack’s mother (Jessica Chastain) tells us at the beginning of the film. “The way of nature and the way of grace. You have to choose which one you’ll follow.” When you first hear these words, you might also choose to read them as a heavy-handed preview of the point of this film. Indeed, The Tree of Life is a fascinating exploration of the essential question that befuddles most of us, in myriad permutations, for much of our lives. Malick’s various nods to the Book of Job are therefore no accident. Accordingly, you might fault Malick for blatantly telegraphing his message before anything even gets started, like many of the SERIOUS films made these days do. Like a novice Zen monk eagerly trying to solve his master’s koan on the first or one hundredth try, however, you would be terribly, devastatingly wrong. Malick isn’t giving his secrets away so easily. As with most koans, the profundities here lie wrapped in the riddle itself. Malick’s opening salvo is a hypothesis for you—and for the grown-up version of Jack—to test you as you are bathed in shockingly beautiful, maddeningly lush images and sounds and glimpses of thought, memory, and imagining.
As Jack reflects on his childhood, from the fleeting snippets of sense impressions in his first days of life all the way through to the afternoon when his family moved away from their home when he was probably 13, Jack weighs the validity of his mother’s words, testing them, testing himself and what he has become against them. In his adulthood, he sees the world as always getting worse, a perception that does not comport with his mother’s optimistic view of things, her insistence that love will always win out, and that without love, one’s life will flash by. “Father, mother,” Jack says late in the film. “Always you wrestle inside me. Always you will.” Shaping this odyssey through Jack’s psyche is the knowledge that his younger brother, the middle of three male children, died suddenly when he was only 19, a tragedy with which Jack’s father (Brad Pitt) continues to wrestle. “I never got a chance to tell him how sorry I was,” we hear him say, words that we soon learn have rankled Jack to his core for decades.
Jack’s father was a businessman, too, a promising and vastly talented pianist who gave up on his dreams for the American Dream. The holder of 27 patents, Jack’s father yearns constantly for approval from the society of which he is a part, but he never finds the satisfaction he seeks. Instead, he turns his frustrations on his children, demanding of them a perfection that he refuses to demand of himself. “Your mother’s naïve,” he tells young Jack (Hunter McCracken). “It takes fierce will to get ahead in this world….The world is run by trickery. You wanna succeed, you can’t be too good.” Always there are corrective proverbs, even though Jack’s father seems to live by few of them. When Jack’s middle brother emerges as a promising, self-taught musician by the age of 10, he easily wins the approval that always seems withheld from Jack. From that point forward, young Jack anguishes over that crucial hypothesis posed to us by Malick. At times he embraces his anger, usually by engaging in violent, destructive behavior. In nearly every case, Jack then must reconcile the staggering beauty that confronts him in the midst of these evil acts.
Lest you think that this film is all swoon and bombast, I caution you that there are no sudden surprises, no overdramatized horrible discoveries, no momentous choices that we can see coming from a thousand miles away. This story is all conventional domesticity, a picture of mid-century upbringing that we imagine most people had, in spite of its conflict with the ideals of domestic bliss from this same period in our history. As in life, the turns of this kind of story happen in the fleeting minutiae of daily existence, in the regret of the terrible things we do say and the lost, important things we do not.
The weight of what will surely be remembered as Malick’s cinematic masterpiece lies, therefore, in its small moments, in the precision with which Malick understands the hillocks and valleys of this emotional and psychological terrain. At one point, a group of young boys move through young Jack’s suburban neighborhood as a rabble, creating trouble wherever they go. In the hands of almost any other director, their overt actions would drive the meaning the audience is meant to take from the scene. The boys would pose and puff up, and the filmmaker would emphasize these grand gestures, leaving little for us to consider beyond the obvious. Here, though, we see the anguish of internalized fear and anger that shapes the ringleader’s despicable choices, as well as the horror that causes the other boys to shrink subtly from him, even though they cannot, dare not turn away from him. It matters less what the boy does to gain their attention than how he and the others play off of and against each other in the midst of that act’s consequences. Likewise, when Jack’s father tries to teach him how to fight, Brad Pitt flawlessly mingles the viciousness of what he teaches with the love we cannot deny he feels for his son. Pitt’s spellbinding performance perfectly captures this cruel, perplexing brand of love, one shaped almost wholly by the fear of what the world might one day do to his son. These contradictions stand out in the worry lines of his face, glisten in his eyes, and radiate in even the smallest of gestures he makes toward Jack as they spar.
In this sense, Malick’s film is really about the symbiotic, yin/yang necessity of the coexistence of beauty and violence in everything we encounter, the persistent dilemma we face as human beings about how to live a life of love when so much around us argues against this choice. You may be tempted to assume that Malick thinks one way is better than the other, but you’d be wrong about that, too. As with yin and yang, both ways exist. There is that and nothing else. Malick understands that his story is not about the easy questions of morality or how to make sure good will conquer evil. He cares only about the mechanics and the consequences, as well as the ways in which we can best understand both. Audiences at first may also be perplexed by the long but startling sequences of the creation of the universe, galaxy, and planet that dominate the first act, as well as by a brief cameo from a pack of CGI dinosaurs, but when the fullness of this koan finally comes ‘round and grabs hold of your soul, as tends to happen with koans, one way or another, The Tree of Life will defy you to keep wearing that polished composure you usually bring to a public theater.
If you are fortunate enough to see the sublime magnificence of The Tree of Life in the theater, there will probably be people around you who just won’t get it. There may also be people around you who will dismiss this film with a pointed tone of great self-assurance as too deep or too confusing or too weird. All I can say to you is that if you are a thinking person, a feeling person, indeed a serious person, you have to go into this film ready and willing to surrender yourself to it. I don’t mean that you have to give it a chance in spite of your preconceptions about Malick and his method, or that you have to put on your really big thinking cap instead of the normal-sized one, or even that you have to go in blindly accepting everything that Malick throws at you.
No, what I mean is that when the urge strikes, you have to be willing to weep uncontrollably in that theater at the unspeakable beauty of what is happening on the screen, as many of those around me did, unashamed of what Malick had just done to them, immune to the sideways glances of those who didn’t get it. If you are incapable of making this kind of commitment, then the cathartic power of The Tree of Life will likely elude you. Yes, seeing this film is—and should be—that kind of transformative spiritual experience for you.
If it isn’t, then you weren’t paying attention.
Theaters, 5 out of 5 stars
Authorial note, June 30, 2011: I went back to see this absolute wonder of a film for a second time this afternoon. I expected that I would pick up on things that I missed the first time and that my pre-knowledge of what was coming might actually subdue my response to it this time around. I was right about the first part, dead wrong about the second. All I can say is that if the first viewing induced mere spiritual ecstasy, the second was akin to touching the face of god.
See it twice. You’ll thank me later.