The Tree of Life has finally arrived in Australian cinemas. Notorious recluse and media-shy auteur Terrence Malick’s fifth feature has been highly anticipated for more than twelve months. It premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May where it was awarded the Palme d’Or. It actually opened in Australia at the Sydney Film Festival where I managed to catch a screening. But amongst all of the other films I was watching, I could not come up with an analysis of such a detailed and subjective film. I needed to see it again, and it is following my memorable and transformative second viewing that I am writing this. On the smallest scale, The Tree of Life chronicles the meaning of life through the O’Brien family, living in Texas in the 1950’s. On the largest, it also chronicles the history of the world, and in extension, the universe, with lengthy interludes of cosmic and prehistoric visions. It’s a magnificent and unforgettable experience.
I adore all of Malick’s previous films, these being Badlands (1973), Days of Heaven (1978), The Thin Red Line (1998) and The New World (2005). Now including The Tree of Life, they all feature in conversations about the most beautiful films ever made. There is almost no way to describe this film, because every single person who watches it will absorb it differently. It's a cinematic experience; so don't go in expecting to watch a story with a three-act structure. First of all, Malick’s ambition is massive. Does he achieve everything he sets out to accomplish with The Tree of Life? No, I don’t think so. How could he, really? But I think what he has released in cinemas is something quite special all the same. While it at times becomes self-indulgent and meandering, the magnificence of the imagery turns this film into something larger than life. Expertly balancing something as monumental as the big bang with something as little as capturing a young boy staring intriguingly at his baby brother is something few of us have seen before.
Nearly every frame of this film is a mini-masterpiece, and the film is comprised of a relentless barrage of these elegantly composed images. Simultaneously weaving a compelling story about a 1950’s family with the surreal images of the origins of the universe, Malick addresses themes of life, death, love, hate, faith, family, childhood and parenting. He literally covers everything. But most essential to Malick's vision is the struggle between the cruelties of nature and the loving way of grace. It is revealed during Jessica Chastain's poetic narration that these are the two ways humans can choose to progress through their lives. The film opens by introducing Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien (Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain), a couple representative of each of these two manifestations, who live in a tidy suburban home and respectable Texas neighbourhood. They each receive the tragic news, Mrs. O’Brien by telegram and Mr. O’Brien by telephone, that their middle son, R.L (portrayed as a youngster by Laramie Eppler), has died at age 19.
The film then jumps forward to a modern metropolis to reveal that their oldest son, Jack (Sean Penn), is in the midst of a personal crisis and has grown disillusioned with a world that has 'gone to the dogs'. We are revealed that he is in a broken relationship and trapped in a corporate architectural job that is leading him nowhere. He is also still affected by the death of his brother and his fractured relationship with his domineering father. His dissatisfaction forces him to reminisce on his childhood in Texas.
It is then that we watch the cosmos form, and find ourselves thrust back into Jack's (Hunter McCracken) youth, the period that the film primarily adopts. Through a kaleidoscope of images, we watch some of the most incredible footage of childhood development ever portrayed on film. We witness Jack grow from a newborn child, to taking his first steps with the help of his father, to running around the neighbourhood with his mother and brothers, to being scolded by his father for slamming the door and challenged to hit him in the face. The key life lessons, the restless rebelliousness, the dual influences of his strict and disciplined father and his sweet and caring mother are all beautifully conveyed.
The Tree of Life is without a conventional linear narrative, and though it moves through different time periods, there is an evident stream of story. There is very little dialogue, with most of it delivered through whispered narration. While the film predominantly focuses on humanity, Malick presents the grand creation sequences, and limits us to be observed but not heard, which really diminishes our significance within the world. The film effortlessly develops, through its elegant images, the complex relationships between Mr and Mrs O’Brien and their children, but predominantly between Mr O’Brien and Jack and Jack and his younger brothers. We learn so much about these people, through such subtle, tender moments as Mr O'Brien playing his piano to the tune of R.L's guitar, and R.L finally forgiving Jack after his dangerous prank. It's all done via the onslaught of beautiful images and the exceptional performances from the cast.
Brad Pitt, in particular is superb. But Jessica Chastain and Hunter McCracken are also wonderful. There is already talk of Pitt being considered for an Oscar nomination in the supporting role, which I think is justified. Mr O’Brien makes a modest living working at an industrial plant. He is a talented man with ideas though he regrets his decision not to pursue music, his first passion. Despite raising three healthy boys, he views himself as a failure. They are the only thing in this world he is proud of. His life amounts to nothing without them. Mr O’Brien is one of the most fascinating characters I have seen in a film for a long time, and Brad Pitt plays him expertly. A hard, disciplined man who wants his sons to grow up strong and learn to be their own men, to not make the same mistakes that he did. While he is tough on them, puts them down and is physically rough, it is very evident that he loves them more than anything in the world. It is so beautifully conveyed by Malick.
Nature is sustained through violence. Mr. O’Brien demonstrates the way of nature. Survival of the fittest. Mrs O’Brien represents grace. If you love people and are good to them your whole life, and love God, then you will find a safe passage through life. These different attitudes to life, ideologies of parenting, and the influences of them as individuals, wrestle inside of Jack. When he witnesses a child drown in a pool he questions the faith his parents have stressed to him. Mr O’Brien has a very strict disciplinary approach. He wants his sons to help around the house, and treat him with respect. He believes that his naive and passive wife often undermines him and turns his sons against him.
We also witness an extraordinary bond between Jack and his younger brothers. As Jack struggles to cope with his father's discipline, his aggressiveness is turned on his sweeter, more talented younger brother, often out of jealousy. It's extraordinary to watch. Even though I am still young, I found myself reminiscing on my childhood days, where I had no responsibility and was free to do what I wanted after school. We used to hang around the neighbourhood, explore places on our bikes and run under the hose on really hot days. I think everyone finds a time in their life when they miss their childhood and the portrait of the sibling bond is wonderfully done. Technically, it is a work of genius too. The cinematography from Emmanuel Lubezki (The New World) is breathtakingly beautiful, the editing team do an incredible job, and Alexandre Desplat's score is mesmerising. Lock them in for Oscar consideration also.
The Tree of Life is often puzzling, but immensely compelling and even more powerful. I don’t want to give a film like this a rating. It is arbitrary because everyone will experience it a different way. But, to remain consistent and to tell you where it stands for me, I’m going with five stars. It is a technical masterpiece and the emotional resonance that this film possesses really left an effect on the second viewing. This is what I was looking for. It’s an onslaught of wonderful images, and while some of them can be dismissed as being meandering and irrelevant, I think the core of this film, the story of the O’Brien family, is wonderful. I wish those cosmic sequences went on forever, too.
My Rating: 5 Stars (A)