Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, is a beautifully-made elegy to the soul of humanity. It begins by portraying the entire history and evolution of the entire universe, from The Big Bang through the time of the dinosaurs (yes . . . dinosaurs!) and then shrinks it down to the memories of a boy growing up in Texas whose entire universe seemed to end at the edge of the driveway.
What makes the film so amazing is the way that Malick encompasses both of these elements into a poetic film that is not always easily understood, but is never-the-less moving and very entertaining. The hub of the movie is seen through the eyes of an architect named Jack (Sean Penn) who looks back over his years growing up in Texas in the 1950s. The movie follows him from the moment that he comes into the world up until he is about to enter his preteen years. We watch him from the moment of his infancy, through toddler-hood and up through the beginnings of his understandings of the world around him. Into that world also come two brothers, one of whom will eventually perish, making his story all the more poignant.
Unlike the opening of the film, which shows the expanse and colossal landscape of the universe, Jack’s world is very small and is headed by two authority figures that are his entire world. One is his father (Brad Pitt), a stern and sometimes abusive disciplinarian, but not a one-dimensional bully. He is a frustrated man whose dreams of being a musician withered away, forcing him to enter the corporate world. His approach with the boys is harsh, but is not unfeeling. The other is his mother (Jessica Chastain), a graceful, angelic figure who is an enabler to her husband and an emotional cushion to her put-upon sons. One of the things I noticed about the film is that the adults are never given first names, they are only called mother and father. There was a time when no one called an adult by their first name.
The movie sees Jack’s emerging understanding of the world, but there is no firm narrative. This is a series of memories from Jack’s childhood and they don’t flow like a normal film would. He remembers the dinner table. He remembers following a girl home from school. He remembers his brothers running to the edge of the yard when daddy came home from a business trip. Yet, the movie leaves a lot of things open. It doesn’t point to the highlights, but rather lets us fill in the blanks.
What is most effective about The Tree of Life is the way it remembers specific details of childhood just in the backgrounds and the foregrounds. It remembers fireflies, wind chimes, a birdbath, grass on the front lawn. It remembers the decay of the siding on the house and dad’s garden out back being eaten away by insects. It remembers boys rolling on the grass in their Sunday clothes. It remembers kids being at the cemetery and playing on the headstones. It remembers stalking around in the woods with the pellet gun and making mom squirm when you brought a reptile into the house.Those details are so beautifully observed and observed in a way that no other film in my memory has done. Yet, it also remembers the growing realization that the two strongest forces in our childhood universe – mom and dad – are human beings who are loving but flawed.
Malick is the most reclusive of filmmakers. Not much is known of his past. He is so reclusive, in fact, that this is only the fifth film that he has directed in 40 years. My guess is that The Tree of Life is a collection of memories from his own upbringing in Texas. His film is very spare and not always easy to understand. I will confess that I an unable to comprehend or understand the last ten minutes of this movie. Perhaps he is saying something profound that comes from his soul, I don’t know. Perhaps my next viewing will give me a better understanding. Malick purposely leaves much of the film unexplained, leaving us with deep discussions after-wards.
The Tree of Life is not for everyone. It is, at times, baffling and other times just plain incomprehensible. I like that about it, I like that it leaves me with something to discover. Not since Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey has there been a film that considers how minuscule we are on this planet in relation to the rest of our cosmos. I am going to become a student of this film, just as I have been with “2001”, watching it again and again and trying to unlock its vast and baffling mysteries. Here is a film the considers the enormity of our universe and relates it to the tiny spaces in our memories. What a wonderful movie.