Director Terrence Malick first burst upon the scene with Badlands (1973), a film based on a real life thrill-kill spree. But it was with Days of Heaven (1978) that he really sealed his reputation. From that first feature in 1973 to this years film, there have been only a total of 5 films in that time. The Tree of Life is a bold and uncompromising one that defies the odds. It certainly has critical success, but box office appeal may require an aesthetic mostly unfamiliar to the general movie-going public – in other words, limited distribution and low box-office. But these are certainly not reasons to avoid the experience for serious moviegoers. Step outside the box.
This film comes closet to laying on the screen images of the divine like no other film I’ve ever seen. It answers the question of why are we here, and what is the meaning and purpose of our existence in a way that leaves you breathless and thoughtful and silently respectful of Malick’s vision. And it’s a stunning visual tour-de-force about the stages of life. That’s a lot to accomplish.
The film begins with the loss, in adulthood, of one of three brothers – the children of the O’Brien’s (portrayed by Sean Penn and Jessica Chastain). Then a cut-away to the formation of the universe, including a haunting scene of two dinosaurs, one in good health and the other seemingly in a weakened state. One puts his foot on the neck of the other and I can’t get the image out of my head. Back to 1950’s Waco where the boys are coming of age, especially young Jack (Hunter McCracken), also seen inter-cut with his older self (Sean Penn). They are being raised by a stern father, a disciplinarian out of the “for their own good” mold. The wife is ’50’s repressed, watching silently as her husband exacts hard measures on the children, especially on young Jack. In Malick’s vision, there are two paths to live life: the way of nature and the way of Grace. Pitt’s character is the way of Nature, hard and unyielding, calamitous and arbitrary, striking down the good and the evil alike. Chastain’s character is the more spiritual way of Grace.
Mr. O’Brien loves his family despite evidence that might be seen as contradicting this premise. But he is unable to show it, given his “nature”. It’s tough love and hard to fathom, but there is room and time for reflection after suffering defeats and blows to his self-esteem. Blows that are part of the way of Nature. After loss and grief, there is also room for redemption and forgiveness. As we see the awesome power of nature’s way in the world (earthquakes, tsunamis, tornadoes), its beauty roiled by its destructiveness, we ask, and we see victims ask, Why? If there is a God, why has he placed us here amidst such beauty, and made many innocents suffer so?
Much of the dialogue is voiceover, especially from Chastain’s character. This requires an especially evocative face, and Chastain is up to the task. Brad Pitt seems perfectly cast here (although the first choice for the role – twenty years in the making from concept to filming – was Heath Ledger). Sean Penn seems out of place, and if the movie has a flaw, I’d identify the realization of the elder Jack. When I say ‘the realization’, I don’t put this all on Penn, by any means. What Malick was after with this character seems to me a failure. Yet the vision of heaven, or paradise, or after-life on the shore at films end, is ethereal and fully realized. All these souls meet, their younger selves embrace their older selves, making all things possible. And what if all things were possible after all?
As a not particularly religious or no longer what I’d consider a spiritual person, this film moved me in a way that awakened some of the more theosophical ways of my youth. I identified with the father, but was hushed into reverence for the mother. My foundation may have shifted just a bit. How many films can have that impact on a viewer?