Terrence Malick’s fifth film, The Tree of Life, is a good film, but clarifying why can be an arduous task. Malick is known for creating complex narratives that rely on all the tools of cinema. The Tree of Life is perhaps his most ambitious effort to date, and because of that the reason that it is good needs to be unpacked.
First, those expecting The Tree of Life to adhere to convention or even linear plotting may be disappointed. This film is atypical and challenging from the beginning. That being said, it is a remarkably honest way to depict the experiences of growing up. Many synopses of the film focus on the actors — Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain as Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien and Sean Penn as their grown son Jack. Yet Malick shows us so much more to their story. He shows the context within the universe.
Since dialogue is limited, the viewer — as opposed to being told — must infer the story. One of the first lines spoken says that there are two ways of life: the way of Grace and the way of Nature. Grace is sacrificing and Nature is selfish. Through this dichotomy, the viewer is given a context in how to experience events.
It can be disorienting when trying to string a narrative together from non-linear points. The narration is spoken from a variety of different characters and done so at a whisper. It is as though the viewer is hearing the prayers of the characters. This method is what I felt was key to the whole experience — intimacy.
As a piece of art that reflects life, the film is in no way trite. Instead of conventions showing the progress of aging, there are cuts from childhood to adulthood. Young Jack, played by Hunter McCracken, is trying to find his place in the world. He is the eldest of two brothers, often at odds with his father. Yet there is no omniscient view here, just exploratory. Despite the viewer having access to everything, there is nothing explained — again, only inferred.
Interspersed with the scenes of childhood and adulthood is beautiful stock footage of the world. Trees, waterfalls, canyons, forests, celestial bodies and microbial growth all share screen time with the actors. Disorienting at first, these scenes are largely relegated to the centre of the film, putting an interesting juxtaposition of the simultaneous importance and futility of human life.
The scenes in this film are more like vignettes. They capture the essence of life, the fleeting moments that everyone can relate to. Alexandre Desplat’s work on the score is subtle and blends in with the images well. Soaring arrangements accompany some parts that might border on the opulent side.
The cinematography is outstanding, something that is taken for granted in conventional films. So many times families have appeared on screen, but never before like this. The camera flows and moves fluidly; it is close up to faces, reading emotions. It is a grand intimacy that is shown here, and the viewer experiences it along with the actors. This different way of looking at things is exhilarating.
Near the end of the film, Mr. O’Brien imparts some wisdom to his son Jack: “You make yourself what you are. You control your own destiny.” Such is how I felt about this film. It is Malick’s attempt to capture the feeling of life, the moments that exist everyday. It is a grand process of filmmaking and I feel it succeeded brilliantly. I cannot recall the last time I called a movie purely beautiful.
For the viewer hoping to see an edgy Sean Penn or a dreamy Brad Pitt, Malick does not deliver. Instead there is a depth plumbed by all the actors in the attempt to reveal something both universal and private. The Tree of Life is more of an experience than a movie and anyone interested in that will not be disappointed.