Warning, there may be spoilers ahead, not that this is a movie with a conventional plot that could be spoiled.
There’s a family. And a messenger arrives and delivers a telegram and runs off. Clearly the telegram says that someone has died. The woman, likely the mother, is overwhelmed by grief. And then …
Then we get a 15 minute sequence with very minimal dialogue that asks very basic questions. Questions about god and life and death. And a sequence that shows the creation of the universe, the creation of the earth, the dinosaurs, the asteroid crashing into the earth that changed the climate that killed the dinosaurs. It’s amazingly, achingly beautiful, and one of the wizards behind this is Douglas Trumbull, the man responsible for the special effects in the final sequence of 2001: A Space Odyssey, to which this bears some resemblance.
And just when you think it’s going to go on like this for two hours, the film shifts gears. A baby is born and grows up. The father is Brad Pitt, the mother is Jessica Chastain. The boy, who eventually has two younger brothers, will eventually grow up to be Sean Penn. And it takes two hours but you realize that what’s happening is that Penn has received word of his brother’s death and is pondering the Meaning Of Life. He remembers back to his childhood, a very normal childhood in Waco, Texas.
Memory is a funny thing. You don’t always remember the things that people think are going to be significant. It’s the little things that shape us; those are what we recall. The boys have a domineering father. It’s the 1950′s of Eisenhower and Life Magazine. The father dominates the family. The boys are taught to obey, to call him sir. He imparts the lessons of life to them but sometimes these are hard lessons because life has often let the father down. A failed musician and a failed inventor, he works in a factory and as he gets older, he sees his dreams slip away. These kids go through all of the normal childhood stuff and it’s all mundane and yet it’s fascinating to watch because it is common to almost all of us and it is so beautifully presented. The film ends, inside Sean Penn’s head, everyone reunited again and happy. (I’m try to remember; I don’t recall Penn having a single line of dialogue and I think his total screen time ends up at under 10 minutes.)
That’s essentially the whole film. What that synopsis doesn’t convey is the stunningly beautiful cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki. The absolutely seamless editing, credited not to one person but a team of 5 in alphabetical order. The lush soundtrack by Alexandre Desplat that merges perfectly with a large selection of classical music. (Berlioz’s Requiem figures heavily in the finale.)
Tree of Life is, of course, written and directed by Terrence Malick. It is only the 5th feature film he has created since he debuted with Badlands in 1973. (The others are Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line, The New World.) This is the film he’s been building up to. It is, on some levels, kind of insane while on others it’s pure visual poetry. There are perhaps heavy psychological meanings as the dynamics of the family relationships are presented. None of the big questions are answered because, well, they’re unanswerable.
I suppose the movie might sound boring and many people probably won’t have the patience for it. I remember when it hit HK theaters, I showed the trailer to my gf and she said she didn’t see anything special about it. But she watched the film with me last night and she was transfixed. Every time her phone rang, she didn’t take the call. She didn’t once ask how much longer there was to the end. And … she told me this morning, she dreamed about her father.
For me, I think I made a journey from “what the fuck is going on here?” to “I think this is a movie I’m going to pull out and watch again and again,” one of those films where I’m going to get something more out of it each time I watch it. It made me think about my own childhood, my own relationship with my parents. It made me think. Apparently it had the same effect on others – not just an 85% rating on Rotten Tomatoes but also the winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes this year.
I’ve read several reviews of Tree of Life. I think Mick LaSalle came closest to capturing how I feel about the film.
If someone gave you, as a gift, a bag of diamonds and rocks, you would not see it as “a mixed bag.” You would see it as a bag of diamonds with some rocks that can be easily pushed aside, and you would be happy to be rich. In the same way, Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life” is at times trying and perplexing, but it also contains some of the most psychologically insightful and ecstatic filmmaking imaginable.
Malick shows you the world that you know, but he shows it in such a fever that you see it, not differently, but completely. It’s a vision so alive to the mystery in everything that the simple depiction of a man walking into an office building feels like a feast of limitless possibility and geometric variety. To see “The Tree of Life” is to wish you could go through life seeing things in this way. There would be no fear of death because each moment would be so full as to contain lifetimes.
From the first moments, Malick presents his film as a contrast between two ways of understanding human existence. There is the way of nature, which sees only struggle and looks for reasons to be unhappy, and there is the way of grace, which is in touch with love and the broad movements of the universe. The way of nature is embodied by Brad Pitt as a hard-charging husband and father – it’s a lovely performance from Pitt, whose control-freak facade never completely hides the vulnerability motivating it. Jessica Chastain, as his wife, embodies the way of grace. They live with their three children in a Texas suburb in the 1950s and are seen through the memory of their eldest son, Jack (Sean Penn), looking back from the present.
As in “The New World,” voice-over narration, to the accompaniment of subjective shots of trees and sky, gives us the characters’ inner thoughts. These produce a unique effect. It’s as if we’re seeing a dream of the past and hearing mental vibrations that, either randomly or because of their particular strength, happened to survive time. The feeling is one of privilege, to be picking up on precious currents of consciousness, seemingly lost to the world.
At its most basic, “The Tree of Life” vividly replicates, in cinematic terms, the way we remember. There are general memories, moods and sensations, and then there are incidents and bits of conversation that are recalled with absolute present-tense lucidity. And so the incidents of voice-over are interspersed with straightforward scenes showing this 1950s family. Malick is trying to give us life as it is consciously experienced, the unceasing inner monologue and its interplay with the outside environment, the thoughts of the past mixing with the suspended and yet always available present.
The ambition behind such an attempt is enormous, and Malick’s success is complete. But he doesn’t stop there. In “The Tree of Life” he doesn’t only want to show what life and consciousness feel like. He wants to capture the nature of life – what life is. To this end, he films waterfalls and mountains, gives us long minutes of churning, multi-colored ooze floating in space, and even includes a brief dinosaur interlude. He is trying to give us the mind of God. No, more than that. He is trying to film God.
When he stays within the multiple minds of his various characters, Malick is working here at the level of genius. His handheld camera hovers with a sense of impending revelation. The beauty is beyond description. But when he ventures into explorations of the universe and its origins, the work becomes general and less interesting, liked warmed-over Kubrick.
Still, there is little doubt that “The Tree of Life” will stand as the cinematic achievement of the year.
(BTW, this was the second half of a double feature on Sunday. The Double Feature From Hell. The first half was Transformers 3. Unbelievable that this film has John Malkovich, John Turturro and Frances McDormand in the cast (and they’re clearly having a good time, perhaps thinking about what I’m sure is one of the largest paychecks of their careers. And Ken Jeong is in it, too! And Ken Jeong’s tongue! Two good things to say about Michael Bay and this film: Bay is expert at instantly setting up the emotional response he wants to get from the viewer, though often that’s done via the choice of pop song on the soundtrack – or the absence of music plus slow motion. And there are very few directors who can combine live action and computer animation so effectively. But the dialogue, characters and plot are squarely aimed at 10 year olds, despite the presence of the luscious Rosie Huntington-Whiteley. The technical ambitions on this film are huge and are achieved. The dramatic ambitions are non-existent. But come on. It’s a film based on a series of toys that can transform from trucks and cars into battling robots. What else should you expect?)