Sweet Mystery of Life

film_treeMalick’s ‘Tree of Life’ an uneven, yet visionary original

Don’t expect linear storytelling from Terrence Malick. His rapturous last film, The New World, plunged viewers into first contact between English Puritan colonists and native American peoples without a road map, or a translator, or any idea on either side of the customs and culture of the other. Audiences who expected conventional storytelling were dumbfounded; there was no way in except to surrender to the strangeness—as the colonists and tribespeople themselves must have perceived it—and let the experience wash over you.

Malick’s new film, The Tree of Life plunges us into more familiar  terrain—growing up in suburban Middle America in the second half of the 20th century—and turns it into something strange and mysterious, a metaphor for the eternal search for grace and meaning in life.

Given the enormity of this theme, the results are somewhat less rapturous, but there are still moments of blistering power, and images of heartbreaking beauty, even if the case for absolute surrender isn’t quite as compelling this time.

The plot is birth, death, and everything in between, from the formation of the cosmos through the dinosaur age to modern American family life, ca. 1950s. (We observe the wonder of creation from space, followed by Nova-worthy dinosaur vignettes to show that life is bigger and more transitory than we can ever imagine.) In the main story, a father (Brad Pitt) strives to teach his three sons goodness, manliness, and the ways of the world, in lessons that are often harsh. Their mother (Jessica Chastain) loves the boys unconditionally. The oldest son, Jack (Hunter McCracken) rebels in the random, mindlessly destructive way of boys that often endangers his loyal, artistic younger brother (Laramie Eppler). At the beginning of the film, the family is profoundly shaken by a tragedy with which the adult Jack (Sean Penn) continues to wrestle into his later life.

Malick’s impressionistic storytelling keeps us mesmerized in these best scenes, the intricately observed minutiae of family life: love and rage, guilt and intimidation, rivalry and solidarity. Pitt’s conflicted father is a formidable presence, trying to make his sons strong, even as he himself feels like a failure. The brothers’ complex relationship is adroitly done; we feel Jack’s sadness and envy watching his younger brother play guitar in counterpoint as their father plays the organ, communicating in a way that Jack never can.

The actors are excellent, particularly the young boys, trying to navigate between selfish “nature” and selfless “grace” within themselves. These family dynamics feel so authentic, it’s not until later we recognize a surrogate Holy Family. Pitt’s almighty autocrat (“Don’t call me ‘Dad’, call me ‘Father,’ he tells Jack) demands obedience and trust. Mother is full of grace; the mild son who doesn’t want to fight doles out forgiveness.

But if read as some sort of vindication of absolute faith in a cruel, but just, deity, the film won’t work. Pitt’s Father never strikes anyone out of wrath, but his emotional volatility can be just as damaging to his wary family; as inappropriately as the boy Jack acts out, his anguished mistrust doesn’t seem misplaced. On the other hand, as a metaphor for the individual search for spirituality, the film can be stunning. A powerful litany echoes throughout: prayers, pleas, and observations that various characters address to the Lord, God, “You,” or an entity they can’t name. (“What are we to you?” wonders one. “Was I false to you?” demands an aggrieved parent. “You spoke to me through her,” adult Jack says of his first experience of his mother’s love.)

At times, Malick loses his grip on our imaginations. We get restless after awhile out in the cosmos, or wandering around the primordial forests. The finale, with all the characters at every age reunited at the water’s edge, feels too self-conscious and stage-managed to convey the exaltation Malick may intend. In film_treeoflifeother moments, Malick proves himself a master of lyrical imagery that defies rational comprehension, but just works: the abundance of nature; a sea of birds swarming in arcane patterns around a shiny skyscraper; the boys’ mother floating and pirouetting serenely in mid air.

Stirring music from the likes of Smetana, Gòrecki, and Tavener add another soulful dimension to this uneven, yet truly visionary tone poem on the pure wonder of being.


★★★1/2 (out of four) Watch film trailer >>>

With Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, and Jessica Chastain. Written and directed by Terrence Malick. A Fox Searchlight release. Rated PG-13. 138 minutes.


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