A film review by Craig J. Koban August 10, 2011

RANK: #2

Rank:  #1


2011, R, 140 mins.


Mr. O'Brien: Brad Pitt / Mrs. O'Brien: Jessica Chastain / Jack: Sean Penn / Grandmother: Fiona Shaw / Young Jack: Hunter McCracken

Written and directed by Terrence Malick

I am not sure that my review – or any review for that matter – would be able to readily encompass the sheer enormity and awesome scope of Terrence Malick’s THE TREE OF LIFE, a film that, as amazing as it seems, is only the fifth in four decades by the enigmatic filmmaker.  

It's quite simply the most ambitious film I’ve ever seen.  Just how enrapturing and awe-inspiring is its scale?  This is a film that looks to be a semi-biographical meditation on Malick’s own childhood memories of growing up in 1950’s Waco, Texas as well as a searing portrayal of family strife, the innocence of childhood, and dealing with loss, death, and grieving.  Beyond that, though, THE TREE OF LIFE also has the bold audacity to visualize for viewers, no less, the origins of the known universe as it relates to the much smaller microcosm of the main coming-of-age story.  The result is a singular work that’s meditative, deeply spiritual, exquisitely breathtaking, sometimes exasperatingly confounding, but one that’s undeniably a masterpiece. 

Malick has always been an almost frustratingly reclusive filmmaking presence whose body of work has been typified by its self-consciously deliberate style, deeply contemplative tone, and, most crucially, an unmatched boldness of vision.  Most of his films, THE TREE OF LIFE included, are not ones with obligatory narratives that go from point A to B and spell everything out: his work asks us to actively experiencing all of their ethereal wonders, which has had the unfortunate side-effect of leaving some viewers annoyed and bewildered.  But that’s precisely what makes THE TREE OF LIFE a soaring and wholly immersive work: it’s less concerned with story and characters as it is with providing an impressionistic and surreal journey.  Some have compared the film to a tone poem, which is apt (the film is less about what is literally said and more about the penetrating emotional response it stirs as its subject matter is revealed).  Malick's film could also be described as symphonic for how it contains and is structured in movements more than in conventional plot beats. 

Then again, it also is metaphysical and sometimes impenetrably difficult to decipher at times, but its core, I think, is in its story (again, if you could call it that) that shows the evolution of a child of the 50’s going from birth, infancy, adolescence, and then to adulthood.  The film opens with a quotation from the Book of Job, as God asks, “Where were you when I laid the Earth’s foundation…while the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted in joy?”  That’s a telling beginning, seeing as the film’s main focal point is a modern day architect named Jack O’Brien (J.O.B...?) played by Sean Penn.  He has difficulty continuing on with the repetitiveness of his occupation, mostly because he still has issues with the unexplained death of the younger of his two brothers when the lad was just 19.  We also see flashbacks to Jack’s mother (the lovely Jessica Chastain) receiving the telegram of her son's death and her later tearfully informing her husband (Brad Pitt) of the news.   

Just like the biblical Job, the modern day one personified by Jack and his mother pitifully ask God (in one of the film’s many Malick-ian voice over tracks) why this has happened.  Of course, the Book of Job chronicles how the prophet was tested by the Almighty through suffering, which seems to be what God is similarly doing with the O'Briens.  The God in the film responds by relaying how the randomness of one human death seems ultimately trivial when compared to the vastness of time and space and the evolution of the universe from nothingness to what we see before our eyes in the present. 



Malick, at this point, then segues to what has to be one of those most visually enthralling and remarkably sustained sequence of visuals ever contained in a film.  It’s lengthy (nearly 20 minutes) and is virtually silent throughout, but it depicts an almost indescribably stunning God’s-eye-view trek from the cold blackness of empty space, the eruption of the Big Bang, the expansion of stars and planetary bodies that form the universe, the birth of our Earth, the first stirrings of life on it in the form of microscopic organisms, the evolution of sea life to dinosaurs walking the planet and, ultimately, to a small meteor crashing on the planet.  All of this is shown with a matchless tangibility; it’s almost as if Malick and company had a film crew on location shooting the beginning of time, and the results are incredible.   

Many have chastised the sequence, but it holds the entire film together on a thematic level.  What Malick is trying to say is how everything in the universe is interconnected, no matter how inconsequentially small or universally large.  Also crucial here is his message of randomness: The death of Jack’s brother is a terrible burden to bare, but it’s as random as the explosion that first tipped off the Big Bang as well as the asteroid – also relatively miniscule compared to the size of the cosmos - that impacted the Earth that lead to a worldwide dino cataclysm.  When Jack’s mother cries to God, “Why?” his response seems pretty darn clear. 

From the creation of the known universe Malick then centers in on the story thread of Jack being raised as a child (played extraordinarily by newcomer Hunter McCracken), which in turn continues the film’s other ruminations on the human condition.  Pitt’s father is presented as “nature” incarnate, a man whose own stubbornness, selfish unhappiness, and workplace dissatisfaction materializes in being a stern and sometimes harsh disciplinarian with his children.  The wife is the distillation of “grace”, a liberated free-spirited and serene presence in her children’s lives, which marks a stark contrast to Pitt’s hard-nosed paternal figure.   

The actors here all have the dubiously difficult task of keeping our interest well after the unconditionally astounding creation of the universe sequence.  Yet, Malick is still astute enough for combining Jack Fisk’s delicate, but immersive period production design (that gets every minute detail right) with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki's loving eye for nature's small wonders (a Malick trademark) with performances that have to relay volumes with very little dialogue at all.  Pitt has never been better as his granite jawed and grimed faced father figure who lets his own limitations as a man negatively influence the upbringing of his kids.  Jessica Chastain is a hauntingly angelic presence that more than epitomizes her role’s outward elegance alongside her inner insecurities and fears.  Hunter McCracken has the toughest performance arc as a boy trapped between two polar philosophical extremes in his mother and father. 

It’s important to note that the film is purposely abstract and fractured in terms of its structure, seeing as it is essentially set up as a series of reminiscences by Penn’s elder and deeply depressed Jack.  I think that Malick’s premeditated and, to some, frustrating lack of formal structure is significant for the manner it echoes how memories and the mind work.  It’s interesting for how Malick marries scenes from the child’s 50’s upbringing with those of the dinosaurs from millions of years ago.  There is a fascinating sequence that shows a larger dinosaur coming across a smaller wounded one as it torments it until it loses interest.  That moment is echoed later when Jack and his boyhood friends distress a frog by attaching it to a small firework.  Cruelty takes several forms and, in many ways, has not changed with the evolution of life on Earth. 

The film’s ending, to be frank, mystified me, but not in an off-putting or derogatory manner.  I may have to see the film again to dissect the layers of its meaning and purpose (does it portray the afterlife, the edge of space and time, or a combination of both?).  THE TREE OF LIFE has garnered much – and well deserved – comparisons to Kubrick’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, one of the greatest of all films, maybe because both inquire about man’s place and interconnectedness within the larger framework of the universe.  Both films provide astonishingly believable portals into time and space using remarkable visual effects artistry  (Douglas Trumbell, who worked on 2001, also supervised the bravura effects here in Malick’s film, his first credited work in decades).  Most importantly, though, both films are almost unfathomable when it comes to their initial meaning.  No two filmgoers will have the same opinion as to the allegories presented within.  The joy of Kubrick’s film is that it not only demanded steadfast patience from its viewers, but that it also left its inherent mysteries open-ended to speculation; Malick's film is much the same.   

Critics of its time, of course, may have lacked patience and endurance to endure the absolute enormity of what Kubrick was trying to relay all those decades ago, but that film years later and in the present is now considered as one of the seminal works of the cinema.  Malick’s THE TREE OF LIFE has similarly befuddled the more fidgety and attention deficit mainstream audience members and many a critic.  Over the course of time and reflection, however, I believe that Malick’s epic exploration of human love, loss, grief, and the interdependence of earthbound existence with everything that makes up the universe from its origins to now will be held in the same regard as Kubrick’s legendary masterstroke work.  You will simply not find any other film in 2011 that tackles almost incomprehensibly high artistic goals and achieves them as resolutely as THE TREE OF LIFE does.     

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