Lost In the Crevices – Brett’s Overlooked Film of the Week: Revisiting “The Tree of Life” as a Masterpiece
Terrence Malick’s philosophical magnum opus: the most beautiful film ever made
– Job 1:21
Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life”—surely one of the most ambitious and awe-inspiring films ever made–transcends the framework of traditional cinema, creating something that must be deeply felt and fully experienced. It’s an invitation to—or, rather, an eavesdrop on—the most intimate thoughts and recollections of a filmmaker pondering deeply the universe and our place in it. It redefines cinematic ambition through singularly Malick-esque self-indulgence, and it’s a film that is as pretentious as it is mesmerizing, frustrating as it is beautiful and disjointed as it is utterly transcendent.
It’s a film that defies narrative structure, spans the distance and time of our universe, and culminates in the breezy rooms of summer in a 1950’s Waco, Texas family home. It’s a series of memories, intimate recollections and poetic images that ponder the inherently bigger questions saturating the conundrum of our existence: “Who are we?” and “Why are we here?”
What transpires in “The Tree of Life” is something deeply personal for its director, or anyone else who has ever spent time doing mental gymnastics while puzzling over the enigma of our being. The film doesn’t desire our acceptance, nor does it aim to please anyone who might not yet subscribe to the niche following of Terrence Malick’s sprawling rumination. However, what it remains, throughout, is a lush and intoxicating ode to the beauty, the uncertainty and the unexplainable found in that of which we admire but do not fully understand.
As Malick’s intimate and contemplative opus begins, the film’s first of two conflicting philosophical-spiritual forces takes shape, both of which–even over plot itself–become the biggest players in his frame of vision. Set to a chorus of stirring a capella voices and the ever-gliding steadicam of Emmanuel Lubezki, we’re introduced to Mrs. O’Brien (the supernal Jessica Chastain)—the physical embodiment, according to Malick’s macrocosm, of one potential path through life: grace.
Father, or, Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt), lies at the other end of our existential seesaw: he’s the hard-nosed disciplinarian of every mid-20th century household. He’s remorselessly controlling, almost to a point of unreasonableness, which Malick argues is nature’s way: it’s authoritative and relentless, just like O’Brien himself– the direct antithesis of his wife’s docile maternal oversight.
Underneath them both is our story’s centerpiece: Jack (Hunter McCracken, seen in later life as Sean Penn), the O’Briens son, who grapples with the tug and pull of the two most powerful and opposing forces he’s come to know, and Malick follows his adolescent existential conflict with the intimacy of a masterful cinematic aesthete, attempting at once to encompass all along the way.
After our microcosm is set, we see the “Big Bang” and the formation of life represented as a series of colorful, interpretive cosmic images. It’s a fast paced ride through the culmination of the cosmos rife with flowing space debris and nebulous phenomena. Then we arrive back at the O’Brien household, only to return to Jack as he bounces around life’s physical and psychological progression, and, it’s here that “The Tree of Life” begins its plotless, contemplative portrait of everyday life, all as unanswerable “whys” and “hows” permeate the incomprehensible boundaries of space and time.
It is here where Malick’s worshipers relish in his knack for “doing what he does best,” and, conversely, where the naysayers begin to roll their eyes and stomp their feet.
I attest to not understanding the latter. When did our cinematic attention span dwindle to the size of a flea?
The movie’s coda carries us to the final interpretive vision of an afterlife where reconciliation between father, son, mother, man and his existence are achieved, and all is understood among the oneness of time. Or God. Or, each other? Maybe they’re all part of the ethereal, and whether the sequence exists or is strictly symbolic is up to the viewer: it’s a representative vision of the reconciliation between our biggest fears and the mystery of our confounding existence.
Underneath it all, Malick leaves us with Nature and Grace: the all-controlling intangibles, and, underneath them we lay—ponderously, with introspect, forever curious. The theater of reality is where it all unfolds, on the playground of our curiosities and innermost thoughts. Our existence is finite and unravels with unsettling, but beautiful haste: nature, grace, God, and time pass– along with everything in between—like ships in the night.
“The Tree of Life” is a film of boundless aspiration and compassion, and it is surely the most beautiful ever made. It’s personal and unabashedly intimate for a filmmaker who has never faltered in his attempts to make the truly great film. It makes the existential pondering in Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” look relatively pedestrian, but that’s not really what matters. It’s humility, above all, is what makes the sensory experience the best, boldest and most ambitious slice of cinema ever created.
In my review of his follow up film, “To The Wonder,” I wrote the following, and its inclusion here couldn’t be more appropriate:
“Perhaps, with all of his films (including this one), he’s attempting to make sense of the mystical, mysterious cathedral of life as he knows it, and, perhaps… no, not perhaps… surely his cinematic ambitions and achievements will be discovered, rediscovered and marveled over for years to come.”