Sometimes you have to risk ridiculousness to find the sublime and director Terrence Malick has never shied away from that paradox. With its hushed dialogue, poetic incantations, and lengthy digressions about the cosmos, it would be very easy to mock Malick’s latest, The Tree of Life, as self-indulgent nonsense. But be careful what you mock. For all its art house pretensions, it is also one of the most resonant examinations of childhood that I have ever seen.
There are two things you need to know before you go see The Tree of Life: One is that very early in the film, Malick takes a break from the O’Briens, the traditional 1950s family he has introduced us to—Brad Pitt is the father, along with his forest-sprite-like wife (Jessica Chastain) and their three sons—and turns his attention to swirling images of fire, water, clouds, and solar systems (there’s even a little parable involving dinosaurs). We are watching nothing less than the dawn of the earth.
Now, some people will be enthralled by the beauty of these images. Others, like myself, will be glancing at their watches, thinking, “Good God, man. When will it end?”
But that’s the second piece of news you can use: The Big Bang portion of our presentation does indeed end—after about 20 minutes or so. From there, the majority of The Tree of Life is a coming of age story about Jack, the O’Briens’ oldest son. In hazy, impressionistic images, meant to evoke old home movies, we see his birth, the ecstatic joy of his parents, then his own sense of wonderment and betrayal as two more sons are born. We already know that the middle son, a beautiful blond boy, will die, presumably in Vietnam. (This isn’t a spoiler, it happens in the opening sequences of the film.) So the images are infused with a profound melancholy.
As Jack grows into a boy—now played by brilliant jug-eared newcomer Hunter McCracken—he loves his mother a bit too much and hates his father with an equally out-of-proportion Oedipal rage.
Pitt is truly excellent as a man choked with middle class regret and resentment, who tries to toughen up his boys so that they can lead happier lives than his own. He is not quite abusive, but he is hardly tender. However, the flashes of tenderness he does show his sons—a piano and guitar duet he shares with his middle child; a game with a hose in the yard—are perfect moments of grace.
We also meet Jack as adult, played by Sean Penn. He seems to be an architect now, clearly more successful than his father. He works in a skyscraper of hard edges and sleek design, meant to be contrasted with the rambling idyll of his youth. The final part of the film, another dud, seems to show the adult Jack in heaven-like place. There’s a beach, and more prayer-like whispering, and more force-fed images of nature.
So where do I stand on this film? Ultimately, I think Malick is a genius, a term I don’t throw around loosely. But he’s not the genius for me, if you know what I mean. If I could get rid of the film’s “book ends”—the two artsy meditations on life and death—I would. But you don’t get to compartmentalize a work of art. On balance, I’ll take what I can get.
To read my complete review of The Tree of Life, check out the July issue of Baltimore.