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Review: ‘Tree of Life’ creates a compelling portrait of transcendence – in cinema and in life

HollywoodNews.com: It seems fitting that just four days before the release of a new Blu-ray box set featuring ten of Stanley Kubrick’s movies, Terrence Malick’s fifth film, ‘Tree of Life,’ opens in theaters: notwithstanding both directors’ tendency to take on new projects with decidedly glacial deliberation, Kubrick and Malick are two of a very few filmmakers in Hollywood history to use the big canvas of the silver screen to ask some even bigger questions. And it’s not unfairly that ‘Tree of Life’ will inevitably be compared to ‘2001: A Space Odyssey,’ because both films use the backdrop of the history of our universe in order to find answers about ourselves – and vice versa. But in terms of technical execution, intelligence and sheer ambition, ‘Tree of Life’ outpaces other films by such a wide margin that it feels almost like the only one worthy of succeeding the grandiosity of ‘2001,’ even if its existential aspirations eventually overwhelm its emotional impact.

At its most practical, the film is about a man coming to terms with the death of his brother, filtered through the literal creation of the cosmos from its most elemental to its most ethereal. Sean Penn plays Jack as an adult, and his reflections on the troubled childhood he and his siblings endured form the centerpiece of a stunningly gorgeous chronicle of the entirety of our universe’s history. Much as the blackness of space heaves and tumbles as it creates solar systems and planets and life itself, Jack’s father (Brad Pitt) calcifies his children’s personalities battling their mother’s (Jessica Chastain) unconditional love with his own gruff, patronizing affection, and both the heavens and their human progeny fumble through this cycle of building, destroying and building again in desperate search for some sense of purpose – or in lieu of that, meaning.

The first image Malick presents us with is a divine, womblike flame that flickers dimly in absolute darkness; depending on your spiritual proclivities, the flame might be God, the original spark that caused the “big bang,” or the human spirit itself. (Or any number of other entities, for that matter.) But the first voice that speaks is Jack’s brother R.L., addressing him and their mother, suggesting that he has gone on to a better place. As the story turns to a fully-grown Jack, he wanders aimlessly through the glossy, confining angularity of a modern life, pausing briefly to offer halfhearted fealty to Catholic ritual, and call his father. In the mid-1960s, meanwhile, Jack’s mother receives a letter informing her that R.L., now 19, has committed suicide.

Simultaneously, albeit in different time periods, Jack, his mother and his father plunge into despair and disillusionment, and their collective quandary prompts quite possibly the most epic daydreaming session of all time as the film journeys back to the beginning of all existence. Elements crash together, oceans of flame undulate, planets form, and living creatures evolve from single cells to dinosaurs to suburban families in a remarkable montage of imagery. Enormous as the leap seems, its momentum somehow feels natural, particularly since the film’s arrival at the story of Jack’s family functions as a microcosmic reflection of larger themes, including the volatility of nature, the evolution of consciousness, and the acceptance of spirituality as a necessary component of life.

It’s in this segment of the film that Malick does some of the best, most heartrending work of his career. His impressionistic portrait of childhood feels fully authentic, starting with his casting of three little boys who not only convincingly play the children of Pitt and Chastain, but exude an atmosphere of scruffy 1950s naivete. Hunter McCracken, as the young Jack, is forced to deal with a world that’s perpetually changing, but is himself incapable of yet comprehending those changes; as his brothers are born and he witnesses the hypocritical authority of his father, he gains a sense of perspective on not just his family, but the world itself, and finally, God, although he and the film accurately acknowledge that he isn’t necessarily in control of his immature reactions, much less the discoveries that prompt them.

Like many other great portraits of adolescence, Malick drapes Jack’s burgeoning teen years in melancholy, in particular as the boy’s feelings about his father parallel his own burgeoning self-awareness. A military man and product of a culture that insisted little boys grow up to be strong, willful men, Mr. O’Brien mistakes discipline for love, and an insistence that Jack say “please, Sir” quickly evolves into a totalitarian approach to governing the household. To children, however, their fathers are God, and it comes as great disappointment for Jack to soon discover that his father is self-serving, contradictory, cruel, and perhaps worst of all, indifferent; watching a classmate drown at the local pool conjures questions not only of mortality – the impending loss of his mother and father – but issues doubts about divine providence. What sort of God would let a young boy die? And what sort of man would treat his family so poorly, supposedly in that same God’s name?

The most remarkable thing about Malick’s treatment of this transformation is that he makes it one that Jack can’t ignore, but he also can’t handle. As he prays, he asks God what He has done to him, and what is he supposed to do with this rush of newfound feelings? As he grows increasingly alienated from his father, Jack looks contemptuously upon his mother for tolerating his father’s indignities, and is eventually forced to determine whether the consequences of his actions really matter: if God won’t intervene and save a drowning boy, or protect him from his own father, why should he try and be “good?” Ironically, after his father leaves for a business trip, Jack takes up his father’s role, and then his behavior in his absence; the brother he once protected, he now torments, and the mother he respected and loved, he abuses and ignores.

As much as his eventual realization of his behavior reflects a familiar sort of coming of age tale, it also serves as a metaphor for man’s relationship with a higher power: idolization, disillusionment, and finally, acceptance. Mr. O’Brien confesses his insecurities, and acknowledges his shortcomings, and Jack (and the film) looks upon him with empathetic eyes; unforgivable as his father’s behavior has been, it isn’t unredeemable, especially when Jack sees his vulnerability, a quality which he knows he possesses himself, and which demonstrates how similar indeed the two of them are – both for bad and good.

Malick explores these ideas with a sense of narrative duality, but never simplistic, 1:1 parallelism; Mr. O’Brien is God to his son, but he’s also the embodiment of a volatile universe which sometimes destroys in order to create. Jack’s personality is no mere mirror of his father’s, but it feels forged by him – a man working through his own inability to reconcile the world that he wanted to create for himself, and the one he inherited from his own father. None of which, it should be said, is observed, discussed or directly acknowledged. And it’s this focused ambiguity that gives the characters shape and the story relatability; the rhythms of the plot can be taken literally and related to emotionally, meant to represent components of nature’s galvanizing cycle of creation, or be conflated with larger epistemological themes.

But even though Malick carefully controls the sentimentality that enables us to care so deeply about what happens to Jack and his family, his attempt to provide them (and the audience) with a sense of spiritual transcendence is ultimately where the film loses its emotional impact, even if the director otherwise brilliantly unifies the different permutations of the ideas he’s introduced. In the third act, Malick more or less literally tries to stage a conversation between these troubled mortals and their Creator as He helps them come to terms with R.L.’s death, and as cathartic as the experience is meant to be for them, for secular viewers it feels somewhat hollower than if he’d stuck with a more human-oriented payoff. At the same time, his suggestion that we are all capable of that kind of divinity is no doubt meaningful to some. But Malick’s return to a more expansive scale dwarfs the intimacy and immediacy of the story told in the film’s second act in favor of a more encompassing finale.

Visually, Malick has never been more assured, or meticulous, as on ‘Tree of Life.’ Although his constantly-wandering camera seems easily distracted by any shimmer of foliage or stray flourish in Jack Fisk’s detailed production design, Malick manages to bring all of those beautiful moments together in a way that both wows the senses and satisfies the story. Meanwhile, cinematographer Emmanuel Lubeszki helps create a seemingly endless series of spectacular, moving and completely singular images, offering evidence that Malick’s painstaking preparation may indeed have begun just around the time that the universe decided to up and create itself. As it advances through history, the camera is constantly looking towards the heavens, as if hoping for evidence of God’s existence, but the film’s point is that spirituality offers truths that are ineffable – even if the vistas that Malick captures seem to offer plenty of proof all by themselves.

Its technical bona fides notwithstanding, however, there’s just something about the depths of thought and feeling that the film aspires to that makes ‘Tree of Life’ such a stunning, superlative achievement. Not only does it avoid committing more conventional sins of resorting to exposition, pandering to its audience, or indulging in manipulative sentimentality, it tries – and mostly succeeds – to examine the nature of faith itself, with an honesty and openness that makes skepticism and ambiguity seem like not only a reasonable place from which to start, but quite possibly the necessary one. ‘Tree of Life’ is a truly great film, not just because of what it accomplishes, but what it even tries; it not only depicts creation, it actually inspires it, because it reminds us that larger ideas must be explored – and not just on film, but in real life as well.

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About Todd Gilchrist

Todd Gilchrist is a Los Angeles-based film critic and entertainment journalist. Over the past decade he worked at a variety of online and print publications, including the Miami New Times, Filmstew.com, SCI FI Wire, and IGN.com, where he wrote reviews, conducted interviews with actors and filmmakers, and edited Movies, DVD and Music content. He currently works for Cinematical.com among other outlets, and has been a member of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association since 2005.

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One Comment

  • May 20, 2011 | Permalink |

    Thanks for mentioning that boy, Hunter McCracken. I didn’t find him on IMDB. I feel like I’ve seen him before somewhere.

    Pitt’s role as a father as he is a god to his son reminds me of his line in Fight Club, “Our fathers were our models for God. If our fathers bailed, what does that tell you about God?”

    Do you find this movie as one of those movies that still got you thinking about it even days after? Great movies are ones that give you that effect, I think.

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