Mark Reviews Movies

The Tree of Life (2011)


4 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Terrence Malick

Cast: Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain, Hunter McCracken, Laramie Eppler, Tye Sheridan, Sean Penn

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for some thematic material)

Running Time: 2:18

Release Date: 5/27/11 (limited); 6/3/11 (wider)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | June 2, 2011

The concept of a "tree of life" has its roots planted firmly and equally across the arenas of science, philosophy, and religion, a visual metaphor that can imply the multiple branches of the varied life on the planet Earth since the simplest organisms arose, the idea that all life is interconnected in the most basic way of existing and cohabitating the planet while human beings have that special bond of unity living as conscious and conscientious beings, and that tree in the Garden of Eden that caused humankind so much angst and strife—the knowledge of life and death. Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life is no less a meditation on all these things, sure to mean as much about one realm of its thought process to one individual while another may dismiss that line of reasoning entirely for his or her own personal outlook on the world.

The Tree of Life is, quite simply, a triumphant piece of personal filmmaking that at once doubts the possibility of and then, as a result, actively searches for meaning. Within its canvas of collected, shared memories are the story of Job ("Where were you when I laid the foundations of the Earth," the film's opening title repeats from the biblical book of that man's name) and the very creation (lowercase intended) of the Earth, in which the foundations of the planet come from violent, lava-filled shifts (A single image of a lush, green plain with a single tree growing on a hill suggests Eden, but this interlude into pre-history does not transpire in a matter of days). In it are remembrances of joy and pain. They intertwine in a tapestry of questions and cries for some recognition of value in it all (When the disembodied voices of the film's characters whisper to "you," some will imagine the first letter capitalized, others will not give it a second thought, and both have their place in the discussion).

Chronologically, it is the beginning and, ultimately, the end of all things, and in the middle of this universal tale is mankind—confused but hopeful, fragile but resilient, lost but searching. That story is represented by a family in Texas in the 1950s. From the piecemeal biography some have assembled for him, the suggestion is that Malick grew up in this place and time. Whether the film is biographical or not is at once an obvious and useless query. Of course, it is, and at the same time, it doesn't matter. The young boy at the center of the film, the eldest of three brothers of a perfectly ordinary middle-class family (like, again from those accounts, Malick), represents that most communal human experience: At one time in our lives, we were innocent and carefree and untroubled, and then we were not.

The boy is named Jack (spending most of the film as a child on the verge of adolescence played by Hunter McCracken). He is born—in a beautiful visual metaphor for a person entering the world, Malick sees a child, caressed by an angelic figure in white (Jessica Fuselier, who subtly appears, doing the same to other characters, sporadically throughout the film), who then swims out of an overturned, flooded house (Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki treats the real and the metaphorical as peers). He grows up in a flash—from a baby to learning to walk, to learning to talk, to playing here, to crying there, to spotting a rabbit in the family garden that reminds him of a bedtime story involving a rabbit called Peter—and is soon joined by two brothers, R.L. (Laramie Eppler) and Steve (Tye Sheridan).

This is the way of things from our subjective point of view. It is common vernacular to speak of how quickly time has passed and how soon children grow, and that essence of memory is captured in glimpses (assembled by no less than five editors), accompanied by the cheery strings in crescendo of Bedřich Smetana's "Vltava" from the "Má Vlast" cycle (The collected music, in addition to Alexandre Desplat's score, is hauntingly evocative, particularly the choral hymns in the extended sequences of the cosmos and beyond). The dialogue takes on its own melodious personality, not only in the narration, but also in how the fractured remnants of remembered conversations bleed in to and out of scenes.

Music is part of the boys' life, as their father (Brad Pitt) once dreamed of becoming a famous musician but is now working at a factory after serving in the Navy in the war. Jack joins his father as he practices on a pipe organ (naturally Bach's "Toccata and Fugue in D Minor"), but he can never have the same sort of connection that his father has with R.L. He watches with longing as the two play a harmonious, impromptu duet one quiet afternoon—son on guitar, father on piano. Jack, on the other hand, spends most of his time with his father fetching a lighter, being instructed on yard work, and receiving criticism for his faulty weed-pulling. Dad certainly has the best intentions, lost on Jack, who only sees a hard man—the perfect target for resentment. It grows as quickly as he does in the montage of his life.

The boys' mother (Jessica Chastain), according to her own voice-over contemplation and Jack's observation, is an agent of grace. It is the opposite of what she defines as "nature," which cares only for itself and its needs, while grace, essentially, thinks of others. She is loving and playful where her husband is stilted and prudent, infrequently doling out affection. Jack's eventual troubles (along with some oedipal angst), which include breaking into a neighbor's home to steal a piece of woman's lingerie, joining a group of boys from the neighborhood in killing a frog by tying it to a bottle rocket, and teasing R.L. with the possibility of and sometimes actual pain, stem from this conflict within himself—wanting to be good but seeing no purpose in it.

The reason is his acknowledgment of death and the questioning of a divine presence acting within the world. The film opens with the news of the death of the parents' son and Jack's brother. Much later, a middle-aged Jack (Sean Penn) wanders through a vast office building, mentally absent from the goings-on around him and remembering the past.

Life and death commingle continuously in the film's shot and rhythmic compositions. A happy, summer day at the public pool turns to tragedy when a boy drowns. The brothers play hide-and-seek in a cemetery, and Jack's thoughts move to imagine the drowned boy in his grave, sandwiched between layers of dirt. They dance in the smoke of a truck dumping pesticide. Even the mother's compassionate touch as she lets a butterfly land on her hand is offset by the appearance of a cat, stalking the fluttering prey, behind her. In the section that documents the history of life on Earth, a small dinosaur, resting on the cool rocks by a river, escapes death at the teeth and claws of a predator, only to be wiped out with the rest of its kind when an asteroid pummels into the ocean.

The film's gorgeous interlude of creation and evolution and its equally enigmatic valediction are key to Malick's thesis. In the beginning, there is the random collection of nebulas and galaxies—the chaos of a planet in turmoil. From these destructive forces arises life. With The Tree of Life, Malick perceives a similar hope that in the end there is life—or, at least, grace.

Copyright © 2011 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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