By Tom Beaver
Roughly five minutes into Terrence Malick’s mesmerizing epic THE TREE OF LIFE- the sensitive, attentive viewer may feel as if a powerful spell is being cast/a kind of pleasant fever that marks your every sensation. The spell, cast by a cinematic magician/an unparalleled master of sound and imagery, is meticulous and disciplined. The magician’s movie washes over you and asks only that you open yourself to what it is (deny your defenses). The film is a marvelous onrush of memories and dreams to be generously shared with the viewer’s sensibilities- EVERY sensibility- from head to toe. It is a raw and visceral experience aimed at your heart and soul with the ability to heal and cleanse. It is unlike most modern cinematic offerings- it has undeniable power.
Decades in the making (it has been said that Malick mused about this project in one form or another as early as 1978), THE TREE OF LIFE has been anticipated for two years and cinephiles (myself included) have been awaiting its delayed release for what seems to be ages. The movie lives up to its hype and surpasses it. It is a force of will and nature from a man who understands time better than any other filmmaker.
The story is simple but the themes are as ambitious and bold as any ever seen in a movie theatre. The narrative (a stream of consciousness flow/underscored by voice-overs/that pulls back and forth from sub-conscious and conscious states/highlighting the internal struggles of the characters) concerns a young boy growing up in Middle America with two siblings. The father, a stern and frustrated disciplinarian (played with a fresh and surprising masculinity by Brad Pitt) is engaged in a battle for his children’s affections. In direct opposition to his unrelenting rigidity is the graceful mother (Jessica Chastain, strong and on the mark). The parents feud and fuss over their children in a fashion that is both authentic to its time and infinitely troubling. We are made aware early on that a son has died. We learn this tragedy occurred when he was nineteen. Jack (played in later life by Sean Penn, who understands how to appear aloof instinctively) is caught between the parents warring natures. The film is book ended by the older Jack (Penn, seemingly dealing with his mother’s death/but this is only hinted at) and his reflections on his boyhood/memories of his lost brother. From these points the story goes back and forth from modern day (Jack’s job as an architect weaving in and out of modern structures devoid of character and life) and late 1950’s Middle America (neighborhoods and houses where nuclear families raise their children in suburban units). There is a sequence concerned with the creation of all life- but the less said about this- the better- although it is unforgettable in its precision and sheer audacity.
One gets the impression Terrence Malick is telling his own story here. It is known that his brother died and Malick is from the same place as the protagonist (Jack). Some of the film’s most effective scenes are obviously distinct memories of a time and place where a child forms his perspective of the world around him- through the lens of his parents opposing viewpoints. The mother is grace (she literally floats on air and speaks of “loving all things”). The father is grace under unexamined pressure and he’s forever disgruntled with the conflicting justices of the world (his rage as inescapable as it is perversely therapeutic). He is a failed musician in his eyes and his wife, a literal embodiment of the feminine, seems to unnerve his troubled core. There is a wonderful scene where mom tells the child “there is nothing to be afraid of…” She summons the child to the window (although the perspective of the shot implies she is drawing US to the window). The next scene is the father by the window holding his baby and looking both protective and fearful, forcing the crying infant into his breast, staring out the window and waiting for the world to disappoint him some more. Jack’s father is poised for disappointment. Jack’s mother deflects disappointment lest it be her husband’s expression. She is pragmatic. He is pushy and deeply exhausted.
The film’s sacred energy lies in its core elements. Malick’s trademark voice-over, his images of nature (sun rays through trees function like periods on sentences), the eliminated or muffled sounds of anguish and violence (the mother’s screams of pain over the death of her child drone away/a criminal escorted into a police vehicle bobs back in forth in the back seat as Malick deems his violence unworthy of sound), the camera lingers on children’s shadows while the triviality of adult confusion hovers in the background. This filmmaker is concerned with mysteries and peace. He shows us the world as it is and as it should be. He shows us the collective soul of the world as he sees it under the stress of being unavoidably human. The quote from the bible at the beginning of the movie is God’s answer to Job. Job asks why? Why do we suffer, struggle, die? Why is the universe indifferent to us? God provides no answers- only ambiguities. The answer to Job’s inquiries, according to Malick, lie in his own awareness of the “glory” in the surrounding world. The same glory that Jack’s father professes to be ignorant of- as Jack’s mother embraces it at all costs.
This movie has no concern with an audience’s lack of patience. The film asks you to exercise the same patience with it that you would a loved one- and for the right minds- it will shower light on deep arsenals that were previously darkened. Malick gives us an adult understanding of a child’s outlook on life. He does not hurry with his film. He unleashes imagery with a divine respect for time. He has simply created one of the most heartfelt and ambitious films you’ll ever see/the overall enjoyment and understanding of which- lies in your own capacity for self-awareness. The film compliments the individual sincerity of heart and mind and the reservoir of humanity that lies within everyone.
The man who made this movie is not pretentious (many have labeled him as such), he is not a selfish entity, he is not a reclusive madman, he is not a creature of ill virtue, he is not the “J.D. Salinger of the film world”.
He is simply a man who’d like to share the glory with you.