by Ken B.
It is extremely possible I lack the concentration, life experience, or overall patience to understand The Tree of Life. It is also possible I was just a witness to a Terrence Malick 139 minute self-congratulatory session. Does this guy have some sort of god complex or something?
Roughly 40 minutes of this film consist of opera music and high-quality video from outer space, or recreating outer space. There’s the occasional voiceover of mildly incoherent but not altogether unnecessary phrasing. Its delivery in a hushed whisper doesn’t help any fighting off pomposity. When a storyline is presented, it’s nonlinear. We flip between the 1950s in Waco, Texas and a present day city. There is one consistent character; Jack O’Brien, who is played by Hunter McCracken in the past and Sean Penn in the present. One day, Adult Jack is thinking about his father. Through the 1950s segments (which comprise of most of this film), we find out about this man (BRAD PITT). The character, sadly underdeveloped to the point of never having a definitive first name, has a wife (JESSICA CHASTAIN), and two other sons besides Jack. Mr. O’Brien, while unquestionably well-intentioned and not without love by any means, clearly has anger issues, but they stop short of physical violence. He yells a lot at his family, but they all take it quietly, which Young Jack grows increasingly upset over.
We’re led to believe that Jack’s never really forgotten about it. The first time we see him as an adult, he’s calling his father, profusely apologizing for something he said. By the end of the film, we possibly know what it is. Malick appears to imply but never confirms or denies, similar to how the viewer must use detective work to figure where the story takes place. It is shown briefly twice: The front page of a newspaper reads “Waco” in the title of the publication, and a pesticide truck rolls by with the city’s name printed on the side.
Another example of Malick’s subtle attitude is a color scheme clue. When Mrs. O’Brien gives birth for the first time, everything in the hospital room is bathed in white. The staff, the light outside the window, the sheets on the bed, and her hospital gown. Later, when we see Mr. O’Brien hold his firstborn son, he’s up against a wall cast in a murky dark color, a sign of how unlikable he will be to his children. Or perhaps something like this: The womb is safe. The rest of the world is not. Or perhaps something like this: A great red herring/coincidence.
The cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki, a collaborator of both Malick and Alfonso Cuarón, is vivid. The contrast between the world of Young Jack and the world of Adult Jack is clear in the shooting method. Adult Jack is an architect, he lives in a modern house and works in a modern building, with fast glass elevators and an emphasis on natural light. Lubezki makes sure this is highlighted. Young Jack lives in a stereotypical suburban home. Uniform shots of dialogue – comfort, with an eerie undertone when needed.
For all of its intriguing ideas (or possibly because of all its intriguing ideas), a scary amount of The Tree of Life comes off as pretentious, art house ready, and elusive for the sake of being elusive. It is parts admirable and frustrating. with the word “vague” spreading all over every frame of it. There’s a point when Chastain’s character holds up her baby, points up off camera range, and says “That’s where God lives.” At this point in the film, Malick had done nothing to convince me he hadn’t placed the director’s chair in that exact spot.
The Tree of Life thinks it’s so important and entitled that it goes all out showing representations of the beginning of the planet (with a brief depiction of dinosaurs) and the end of it, with the scientifically agreed conclusion of the sun’s transformation into a red dwarf doing it in. But even those scenes aren’t the definitive beginning or end. The first shot is a quote from the Old Testament Book of Job (which makes sense – Jack’s initials are J – O – B and he goes through an awful lot of struggle). The last live-action shot is comprised of countless people interacting on a beach. I won’t say exactly what happens there (Lubezki does some good work framing that).
The Tree of Life was the kind of movie where I wasn’t sure whether or not I liked it for a good forty minutes after it ended. I have now come to the conclusion that I am moderately appreciative of its creativity and deeply enraged by its self-evaluation and supposed sense of importance (so, I guess kinda what would happen if I made a movie). Here, amidst an array of great acting and Malick being the deity (even more literally than the literal definition of a director), is a final product that will mean something different to all who watch it. Helps, because then there are more who could potentially call it a masterpiece. I couldn’t say that in good conscience… yet.