Can any critic fully trust their initial reaction to such a thematically mammoth film like Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life? I’m battling this question myself nearly two hours after the film premiered at Cannes. To do so almost seems like a disservice to the endless possibilities Malick’s film affords the viewer, like competing in a mad rush to a finish line that doesn’t exist. Unfortunately, the long gestating hype surrounding the film and the “Shoot first, ask questions never” dogma of Twitter has already taken their toll. Processing a piece of film art like this takes time, and a lot of it, especially when the core function of The Tree of Life is to linger and crystallize. Since my own relationship with all Malick’s films remains fluid, I’ll try to reveal certain impressions about his latest project at this one moment in time, at this particular crossroads of perception. It’s most definitely a profound and shape-shifting work, a towering examination of the way light and sound both comfort and repel. In turn, my thoughts will most definitely follow suit, morphing over time with repeat viewings.
The struggle between “grace” and “nature” resides at the heart of The Tree of Life; the former represented by 1950s suburban housewife Mrs. O’Brien (Jessica Chastain) and the latter by her businessman husband (Brad Pitt). Their oldest son, Jack (Hunter McCracken), is torn between the two belief systems, drawn to both for vastly different reasons. His mother’s selflessness and yearning overlap with his father’s strict and domineering presence, shaping personality and action during every family dinner and dutiful chore. To show the serpentine effects of this central tension, Malick flashes forward to Jack as an adult (played by Sean Penn) wandering through fortresses of modern commerce trying to retain an emotional connection with his heightened past. Towering glass structures reflect the hypnotic, cloudy blue sky, offering only mirrors of clean lifelessness during Jack’s postmodern stroll down memory lane.
The warring duality of The Tree of Life transcends time periods and continents, feeling as organic and explosive as molten lava flowing into the sharp blue ocean. In a feat of staggering reinvention, Malick includes what can only be described as celestial intertitles for a long period of the film. The symphonic images perform a sort of cinematic hypnosis, changing color and shape like an interactive painting lulling the viewer into a heightened state of being. The substantially fluid mise-en-scène looks as if it’s literally dripping with cinema. Even after Malick returns to the human dilemma of young Jack and his parents, elements from this section return in the form of a son’s impressionistic drawing, a flowing river, and two brother’s crying together in the high grass. All are personalized formations of the divine, stepping stones to enlightenment for those mired in uncertainty.
Jack’s internal fluctuations, both as a child and adult, speak to a poetic union between Malick’s imagery and the dancing themes they represent. An ongoing journey to reconcile personal conflict with universal faith, The Tree of Life documents in striking clarity a tidal pool of self-reflection, making Jack’s fractured memories and modern dream state flipsides to the same human coin. So goes Malick’s treatment of Jack’s family life. The moments with his mother are often framed in wide-open spaces, whether it’s running together on the street or playing under their epic front yard tree. Even the interior scenes between Mrs. O’Brien and Jack seem to open up, like when Mr. O’Brien’s absence produces a gleeful celebration in their luminescent living room. Jack’s time with his father is framed almost completely different, with tight compositions forcing both characters together during confrontations. I can’t help but think of Pitt’s telling voiceover (once again Malick’s communication device of choice) during a particularly reflective moment with his son. “I do what I hate,” he muses, a confession that develops his identity and personality beyond the cliché angry father. In Malick’s universe, he’s both the shining light and the dark cloud, and everything the coming storm implies.
Like every Malick film, The Tree of Life has a lush visual look and insanely dense sound design. Aesthetic layers wrap each scene in a panorama of color and texture, melding past, present, and future into one tonally similar space-time continuum. Jump cuts are prevalent, indicative of the older Jack’s gap-riddled memory than anything else. Interestingly, landscape is not just a character in The Tree of Life, but another platform for divine intervention and sudden destruction. Water, fire, wind, and rain comingle naturally. The burns on a child’s head, the mouth of a drowned boy, the blowing leaves on a young tree, and the blood of an ancient creature in the water are all markings of Malick’s consistent duality.
Alexandre Desplat’s rapturous score further solidifies this sense of interconnection. At times wistful and at others overpowering (the rafters of Lumiere Theatre seemed to shake), the varying musical themes in The Tree of Life hint at a cross-section of space where spiritual and emotional transcendence are one in the same. In the end, Jack may find this special type of heaven standing side by side with the familiar faces from his past, warmly aglow in their simultaneous presence.
One last thought: The Tree of Life feels so much more than merely “metaphysical” or “lyrical.” Elemental might be the best way to describe its relationship with cinema and theme. There will undoubtedly be people who think it falls short of its astounding ambition. I disagree completely. The Tree of Life is Malick’s ultimate doctrine on light, sound, religion, rage, regret, guilt, promise, and memory. Corridors of all kinds lead us toward the glimmering light, but Malick dares to destroy the boundaries and swoon over the possibilities of open-air perspective. The nature of grace has arrived.