Root of the matter
Tree of Life is a beautifully rendered spiritual vision
The new, much-heralded cinematic extravaganza written and directed by the mysterious Terrence Malick (Badlands, Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line, The New World) has finally reached us—via the Pageant Theatre—and I’m here to report that this lavishly “experimental” production is strange and beautiful and, at least part of the time, enthralling.
And it is also a good deal more accessible and engaging than has been reported in some quarters. In comparison to most American movies, it does seem “difficult”: complicated time scheme, shifting point-of-view, a sort of mosaic approach to storytelling, a fragmented family drama moving associatively through past, present, dream-time and spirit vision.
The emotional and spiritual conflicts among the O’Briens, a Midwestern family of five in the 1950s, provide the film with something like a conventional narrative anchor, but The Tree of Life is less concerned with telling a story than with evoking what is ultimately a spiritual vision, which is to say it’s a kind of poetic rhapsody in exquisitely cinematic form.
Those rhapsodic elements—often in sensuously exalted combination with Emmanuel Lubezki’s superb cinematography and Alexandre Desplat’s enthralling musical score—are what make the deepest impression in the long run. That and the splendidly lyrical visions of conflicted childhood are the film’s strongest suits.
Several members of the O’Brien family loom large in all this, particularly with a stolid Brad Pitt and the ethereal Jessica Chastain as the parents. But the pivotal character is Jack, the eldest of three sons, who is played by Sean Penn in the present-day scenes and a haunted-looking Hunter McCracken in the scenes of childhood and the 1950s.
The adult Jack’s memories and obsessions are the ultimate organizing principle for the film’s free-floating imagery, while his father and mother are the poles around which his own internal contradictions revolve. And the film seems to define those poles, via Chastain’s diaphanous voice-over, as “nature” and “grace.”
Despite the centrality of Penn’s character in the scheme of things, the role gives him almost nothing to do apart from appearing the anguished and occasionally devastated observer. Pitt has the meatiest single role, the arrogant patriarch and archetypal self-made man, and he does some nicely nuanced work with it. Chastain is a suitably earthy/angelic presence as Mrs. O’Brien, and has the added advantage of being quietly persuasive as the presiding voice in the picture’s intermittent spiritual discourse.
And that’s not all: The Tree of Life also has a couple of episodes of Oedipal conflict and a series of half-ironic ruminations, via Mr. O’Brien, on capitalism, patriarchy, aggressive individualism, technology. There are several occasions for meditations on death and tragic loss, and parts of the film serve as intensely artful nature documentaries, amidst which there is a fictional episode involving prehistoric beasts.
That said, the moment that most makes me want to see this film again soon is one in which a major character levitates beneath what just might also be the tree to which the title refers.