Directed By Terrence Malick. 140 mins.
Worth my time? Yes. (Seen at the American Cinematheque’s Aero Theater)
A few months before his death, Roger Ebert revised his “Ten Greatest Films of All Time” list with the inclusion of The Tree of Life. Some folks criticized Ebert’s choice as shortsighted as the film made its world premiere at Cannes just two years ago. The screening at the Aero – part of the Cinematheque’s series of Ebert’s favorite films – further reinforced my conviction that he was right on the money. Aside from Holy Motors (and possibly The White Ribbon and Syndromes and a Century), I can’t think of any films in the last decade that will weather the test of time as well as the Tree of Life.
I have now seen Malick’s magnum opus (sorry, Days of Heaven, I still love you) three times on the big screen, and the force with which it pulls me into its universe only grows stronger. I have never seen another movie that tells an intimate story on an astronomical scale. The basic plot on paper reads like standard Sundance fare: Jack (Sean Penn), a jaded, middle-aged architect, reflects on the premature death of his younger brother and his subsequent estrangement from his Mother (Jessica Chastain) and Father (Brad Pitt). Malick, of course, would never settle for something that simple. Or as least he wouldn’t have until To The Wonder ruined his 1000 batting average, but that’s a discussion for another day.
While running nearly two and-a-half hours, The Tree of Life goes by in a blink of an eye whenever I watch it. A lotta people find the film to be boring, and I am becoming less and less sympathetic to their opinion. The concentration of beauty and emotion in The Tree of Life is staggering. The film’s narrative branches cover a lifetime of Jack’s memories, dreams, prayers, grief, and ruminations that carry the viewer from the Big Bang into eternity. I’ll be floored if I ever see another film quite like it.
Given the film’s insanely large ambition – essentially dissecting the human condition and the meaning of life and love in a Universe devoid of justice – it’s a small miracle that The Tree of Life hits the mark almost perfectly. The usually meticulous Malick outdoes himself with the level of craft in every aspect of the film. Emmanuel Lubezki’s second-to-none cinematography (how can this dude still not have an Oscar?), Alexandre Displat’s score, and VFX by the legendary Douglas Trumbull by themselves justify the price of admission.
The way that Malick manages to take the viewer through Jack’s life is (words fail me, so insert whatever positive adjective you wish). The sequences of Jack’s first years perfectly capture the blissful naïveté of youth when the world seems magic and every new experience is a revelation. The authenticity of these scenes magnifies the impact of Jack’s eventual exposures to violence, bigotry, death, cruelty, and resentment. His struggle to make sense of his Father’s “Way of Nature” – belief in self-determination at the cost of selfishness, strict discipline and unattainable perfection – and his Mother’s “Way of Grace” – love of God and humankind at the cost of keeping one’s faith in spite of immeasurable suffering and injustice – if one of the most heart-wrenching conflicts I’ve ever seen in a movie.
Though they have very little dialogue, Jack’s parents may be even more interesting than the protagonist. Pitt deserved a wheelbarrow of awards for his role as the Father. A frightening, imposing figures in the eyes of young Jack, he ultimately reveals himself to be a sad little man. The Father clings desperately to the idea that he makes his own destiny and “there’s nothing you can’t do,” even though his own life disproves the ethos at every turn. He throws his fate to chance in smoke-filled poker rooms. He speaks highly of his engineering patents though he loses time and again in patent court. On Sundays, he complements his fellow parishoners on their success, only to grumble about them on the drive home.
Two tragedies stem from the Father’s callous worldview. The first tragedy befalls his wife and children: whether he realizes it or not, he runs his household with a needlessly ruthless “tough love,” a sort of petty despotism to substitute the power of which he thinks life has unfairly deprived him. The second tragedy he brings upon himself, realizing the error of his ways too late to reconcile with his children.
Chastain possesses an angelic aura as the Mother, probably the way that Jack remembers her. Her faith in God and the goodness of mankind runs deep within her, but it may actually leave her in an even bleaker state than the Father. While the death of their son tortures the Father with guilt, the Mother is shaken to the very core of her being; such a sudden trauma contradicts everything she believed about the nature of Being.
While Malick clearly disagrees with the Way of Nature, I don’t think he completely buys into the Way of Grace either. Parts of the film portray both Ways as inaccurate models of reality. However, the Way of Grace, even with the heartbreak it can bring, receives a strong defense in a line near the film’s close:
The only way to be happy is to love. Unless you love, your life will flash by.
All worldviews contain some measure of delusion, but I know which Way I would prefer mine to resemble.
(Seen and originally written on 2013-05-20)