The Tree of Life

Life begins and ends in the opening moments of Terrence Malick's hypnotic The Tree of Life, and then it begins and ends again. The universe, imagined here in peerless CGI compositions and landscape shots of such distinct clarity as to turn the makers of Planet Earth green with envy, is in a constant state of dithering and delighting, expanding and exploding, rising and relenting. The notoriously reclusive Malick uses these images, accompanied by pieces by Bach, Mahler and Holst, as a mere overture. A raptor spares the life of a young, weak brachylophosaurus while cells divide, collide, and coalesce into human life, which takes on the shape of the O'Brien clan, a family of five living in a suburb of Waco, Texas in the fifties, where a fog of DDT and the sight of a slender beauty's nightgown become totems of the transcendentally unsettling adolescence of the eldest O'Brien child, Jack (Hunter McCracken).

Shards of the O'Briens' lives, most pointedly the loss of one of their three boys at the age of 19, preface Malick's symphony of time and light and climax in the now, with the brief introduction of Jack, fully grown and embodied by Sean Penn. Jack as a man lives and works in new towers of light, glass, metal, and stone. These buildings are cathedrals meant to defy time, and Malick's film very well may do the same as it heads off into the ages. This has certainly been the case for the writer and director's past films, which have come in at an excruciating pace that averages out to about one a decade. Malick's quiet, poetic sense of cinema, however, is such that the five films he has completed have put him in the same class of working American filmmakers as Martin Scorsese, David Lynch, and Frederick Wiseman. His debut, Badlands, remains one of the key American works of the 1970s.

His subsequent features are, among other things, masterpieces of tonal precision, with the arguable exception of The New World, which is, at the very least, a very beautiful film. Malick's personal sense of style molds and looms over all of these works but The Tree of Life is, as has been widely noted, his most personal film by quite some margin. His father worked for a large petroleum company as a geologist, a career at least tangentially akin to Mr. O'Brien (a phenomenal Brad Pitt, who also serves as producer here), an engineer perpetually frustrated by his failings as an inventor. Indeed, Malick himself here seems in the ethereal between the familiar mechanics of cinema as a form and the inventiveness of liberated art, though it's hard to imagine his outlook being anything as tough and bleak as the future that Jack's father sees for his sons. Mr. O'Brien is a strict, domineering presence in his home, with the disposition of a summit of dark clouds pregnant with thunder, whereas his wife (the utterly enchanting Jessica Chastain), with her hair the color of orange marmalade, is a nurturing, open and forgiving influence on her children.

Words are spoken by these characters, but they are also whispered in voiceover, appearing suddenly out of the dense thicket of sound that supervising sound designer and editor Craig Berkey has woven, mixing a Gorecki sonata with the implacable hum of a sweet summer night and an unassuming, magnificent chorus of boys' laughter and shouts. As much as Tree of Life may be an essential piece of cinema, its true meaning impossible to pinpoint and its mysteries doubling over on themselves within a single shot, it is also a minefield of dichotomies, not the least of which is Berkey's ocean of percolating, nuanced noise, topped off by Alexandre Desplat's towering score, and Malick's astounding collaborative work with the great cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who worked on The New World as well. The visual schema is just as ravishingly mixed as the sound, especially in its stunning use of effects, crafting moments of moving transcendent grace, the most memorable of which features Mrs. O'Brien floating, twirling, rolling in the air as dusk settles in on her neighborhood.

That moment of aerial ballet is tied as much to Jack's memory as it is to the vibrant balance Malick strikes between metaphysics and nature, adolescence and adulthood, celestial masses and earthbound landscapes, fathers and mothers, light and darkness, life and death. The director's ambitions are innumerable and ultimately insurmountable -- which is why, despite my great appreciation and love for the film, I cannot say that it is a masterpiece on par with Malick's first three works. Whether it may be an optimist's response to 2001: A Space Odyssey or a Christian fable relocated to the American south and played out with operatic grandeur, The Tree of Life is nevertheless an event, not to mention a stunning reminder of the power of the big screen in the age of VOD. To truly give into Malick's film, which some may find impossible or unreasonable, one must be overwhelmed by its images and its inherent mysteries; like all of Malick's films, it outright demands multiple viewings. And even if The Tree of Life, fresh off its Palme d'Or win at Cannes, is a textbook example of style-over-substance, as many of its detractors have argued, it is a tremendous exercise in style, anchored by the finest performance Brad Pitt has given to date. For this reviewer, however, witnessing Malick's vision of eternal life obliterated me almost immediately, only to eventually return me to a corporeal state, just in time for the closing credits.             

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