The Tree of Life (2011) – Malick’s Meaning of the Universe…

If you liked all the dreamy tree-gazing poetry that broke up the fighting in Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line, here’s another two hours of it for you. Malick’s latest isn’t for everyone, as it tells a family drama without traditional methods such as plot or dialogue, taking in the creation of the Universe for good measure.

Malick likes to take his time making a movie, and “The Tree of Life” is only his fifth feature in thirty-eight years. That means it takes Malick almost as long to make a film as it does for the audience to watch it.

If you are not familiar with the Director’s work, you are best advised to approach this film as if sitting down to watch an orchestra perform a symphony.Dialogue and story are of secondary importance to images.  The film opens with snapshots of a grieving family, although it is not clear who has died, or what the circumstances were.

These glimpses are like fragments of memory, which we assume belong to a middle-aged architect, played by Sean Penn. As it turns out, the circumstances of his younger brother’s death will remain a mystery, but that isn’t important when played out against the canvas of God’s universe.

Most of the film’s oblique dialogue comes in the form of a whispered voice over, like the interior monologues of the soldiers in Thin Red Line.  These thoughts are often in the form of a prayer, or questions directed at God – “Where are You?” – or the deceased brother, or perhaps both at the same time.Some reviewers have compared the film to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, but goes one better – while Kubrick’s adaption of Arthur C. Clarke’s novel only covered Mankind’s evolution, The Tree of Life encompasses the whole of history, from the Big Bang, right through to the hereafter.

However, while Kubrick’s eye was cold and meticulous, Malick is reverent to all things that make human life bearable.  While his view of childhood is nostalgic, it is not rose-tinted, and treasures those moments where the love of God/Universe is present in the touch of a loved one or the wind through the trees.

The early scenes of the Universe’s creation are done with enigmatic cloudscapes and mysterious shapes, leaving it to the viewer to decide exactly what they’re looking at.  The sequence is as awe-inspiring and absorbing as Bowman’s trip through the stargate in 2001.The film eventually settles down into something resembling conventional narrative as it follows the O’Brien family from the birth of their eldest through to when they leave their neighborhood years later.  Mr O’Brien (Brad Pitt) is eventually faced with a dilemma at work – either lose his job, or take a position in another part of the country.

Although this is Malick’s movie, this is a big performance from Brad Pitt. It’s a shock to see him at first – with a buzz cut, bunched jaw muscles, horn rimmed spectacles, cheap starched short sleeve white shirt and a skinny black tie, he’s left his uber-cool personae of Tyler Durden behind.  He looks more like Michael Douglas’s psychotic poster boy for white collar anonymity, D-FENS from Falling Down.Pitt, now pushing fifty, may see this as his breakout role.  No longer is he the laconic or reactionary understudy to an older, wiser actor (Ocean’s Eleven, Seven).  He is the older actor now, and it is startling, brutal and elevating to see him suddenly in that light.

With the absence of a normal script, he manages to portray a devoted, God-fearing father in a series of abstract snapshots, which due to their regularity, give the flick-book appearance of a series of stills coalescing into a narrative.He’s a devoted father, but also a strict disciplinarian, as is demonstrated during numerous dinner table stand offs between Mr O’Brien and his offspring.  He loves his wife, but the kaleidoscopic memories whirling across the screen show the tension put on them by the pressures of life.

There are scenes of Mr O’Brien insisting his children finish sentences directed at him with “Sir”.  There are also scenes showing him gambling, and flirting with a waitress in a diner, without suggesting in a melodramatic way that he’s either a ruinous gambler or a nefarious womanizer.

For all his downfalls and tense moments when Mr O’Brien’s disciplinarian tendencies threaten to boil over into violence towards his wife and kids, he’s not portrayed as a bad father.  He just simply wants his boys to grow up into God-Fearing men like himself, and wants to give them the benefits of the upbringing he had.His wife, Mrs O’Brien, is a mainly speechless part, played with warmth and charity by Jessica Chastain.  She illuminates the screen as the infinitely more benevolent parent.  It is suspected she may be idolized in hindsight by the grown up Jack.

Hunter McCracken has a breakthrough role here as the young Jack.  As a boy he worships his dad, but as he approaches adolescence and becomes more aware of his individuality, starts running with a bad crowd and begins to resent, and eventually hate, his strict father.It’s hard to think of another film recently, apart from 2009’s Fish Tank, which so successfully celebrates and commiserates those ties that bind, the painful love/hate relationship with our families.

Without the trite dialogue, routine situations and deathbed melodrama usually served up in a family tragedy, The Tree of Life speaks clearly about the beauties, both cherished and dreadful, of our loved ones.

I suspect The Tree of Life will divide audiences roughly into thirds – those who find it simply boring, pretentious tosh; those who get it, but find it achingly somber and sincere; and people like me.
I was moved by the film on a profound and meditative level – I also appreciated not getting served up the usual sentimental family drama cliches.  I loved the way childhood was portrayed as a mixture of warm memories and bitter memories, of feathery feelings of a loved one’s touch and snarling dinner table feuds.

In our cynical, know-it-all age, it takes a brave man to give us a vision like The Tree of Life. – someone who is not afraid to say all God is in the Universe, and all the Universe is within us.  We will see our loved ones, because we are all part of the same thing.

That omnipotence is in the Big Bang, the meteor that wiped out the dinosaurs, a breath of breeze billowing curtains on a hot summer’s afternoon, and the love that carries us through to the ever after.  Thank the Universe we have Terrence Malick.


About leerobertadams

Lee is an English writer, blogger and film critic living in Brno, Czech Republic. When not watching and writing about movies, he loves football, reading, eating out, and enjoying his adopted home city with his girlfriend and baby daughter.

Posted on 16/05/2012, in Drama, Film, Movies, Reviews, T and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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