The Tree of Life
The audacity of what Terrance Malick attempted with his latest, Palm-d’or-winning film The Tree of Life is nothing short of ambitious. Whether he succeeded or failed has been hotly debated in the last few weeks, particularly after the love the Cannes Film Festival bolstered upon it. What Malick has offered is an impressionistic, meditative piece on the meaning of relationships and the connections they offer in an eternal perspective. Indeed, the film covers the beginning of time with beautiful shots of what most likely should be interpreted as the creation of this universe, the forming of this earth. Shots of cells, plants, volcanos, and other images that suggest things like the primordial soup fill up most of the film’s beginning. A few gloomy dinosaurs even make their appearance. It’s all very contemplative, and strikingly beautiful.
At some point in the film’s journey through time, we settle in 1950s era Waco, Texas. A striking choice of location considering it’s celebrity. Here we meet a family of five–Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt), his wife Mrs. O’Brien (Jessica Chastain), and their three children Jack, J.L. and Steve. Jack tends to hold the camera’s attention most often, and there are scenes in the present day (and distant future) where Jack is played by Sean Penn as a listless and confused adult working in a modernist city setting. As with Malick’s other films, there’s a great amount of voice overs rambling barely audible sentences that fail to meet the definition of dialogue, are often unrelated from the words whispered before and after it, and seem to be flowing in a stream-of-consciousness sort of way. This will certainly rub some people the wrong way, yours truly included. The impetus of this device comes in the film’s opening scene where Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien learn of the death of one of their sons, an event that impacts the mood of the entire remainder of the film. Existentialist pattering like, “Unless you love, your life will flash by.” Or “Nature only wants to please itself. Get others to please it too. Likes to lord it over them. To have its own way. It finds reasons to be unhappy when all the world is shining around it. And love is smiling through all things.”
The world that Malick managed to create and place the O’Brien family in is nothing short of remarkable. It’s atmospheric in the very best ways, it’s haunting and truly reminiscent of the ways childhood memories seem to float through our minds, the complicated connection and disconnection we feel with our family members. Visually, much of this should be attributed to the production designer Jack Fisk and the cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezkiwho captures the innocence of childhood and complex subjects Malick intended with their beautifully composed shots. Alexander Desplat gathered the score which, besides being perfectly fitted to the film’s images, provided a much needed emotional connection to the on-screen goings-on. The music comes from varying sources, ranging from Brahms to Henryk Górecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs.
You will not find the presence of traditional storytelling in The Tree of Life. Personally, I’m all for experimental-type filmmaking. But where this film errs is in it’s inability to make one care about its characters. An exploration of the parent-child relationship would be a welcomed one, had Malick allowed me to invest in any one of the characters. With this missing element it’s difficult to find value in what is being portrayed on screen. Particularly with its eternal perspective–the film ends in the setting of some sort of after life on an idyllic beach.
There are moments of brilliance scattered throughout the film. If you’ll forgive the comparison, it reminded me quite a bit of Gaspar Noé’s Enter the Void: genuine genius sprinkled through excess you must trudge through to find.