The great astronomer and scientist Carl Sagan once said, “If you want to make an apple pie from scratch, you have to first invent the universe”. That’s a statement worth reflecting upon when considering Terrence Malick’s The Tree Of Life which is a toweringly ambitious piece of work, a spectacular masterpiece which dazzles on practically every level and one which will no doubt be the source of debate and argument for a long time to come.
Sean Penn plays Jack O’Brien, a middle-aged man undergoing a mid-life crisis which causes him to reflect on his life, growing up in 1950s suburban Texas with his two younger brothers. His formative years took place under the strict disciplinarian rule of his father (Brad Pitt) who gives up his dreams of becoming a musician to be a businessman. His father believes that the world is a tough place and in order to succeed, his boys must also be tough. To that end he has no qualms about harshly castigating them for the smallest of perceived infractions, whether it’s insolence or simply slamming the screen door. He forces them to appreciate music but also challenges them to hit him while sparring in their back yard.
One of the brothers died in (it’s assumed, though never explicit) military service at the age of 19. In Penn’s short amount of screen time, he manages to convey a harrowing sense of loss which reverberates through the rest of the film – a feeling that some wounds will never heal, that actually, to the contrary, some scars become more livid by the number of times memories are revisited.
His mother (Jessica Chastain) is a gentle woman who encourages her sons to “seek the way of Grace” rather than the one of natural law – in this case Tennyson’s “nature red in tooth and claw” which Mr O’Brien seems to advocate. Jack is caught between his father’s uncompromising practicality which “finds reasons to be unhappy” and has no room for gentleness and his mother’s idealism where “no one who loves Grace ever comes to bad” despite evidence to the contrary.
Jack begins to reflect on his own insignificance, that in comparison to the wondrous fathomless depths of space, his life, in fact all of human life is small and ephemeral. This unfolds on screen in a gigantic visual ballet, a magnificent arrangement of symphonic colours and silent explosions which depict first the creation of the universe and then the evolution of life on earth (dinosaurs and all). It’s as poetic as it is grandiose – excessive and daring, yet beautiful and hypnotic.
It could also be seen as a kind of solipsism on Jack’s part – that everything up to now – the creation of the universe, the evolution of life, is a precursor to his upbringing and his personal circumstances. It recalls Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation in which a screenwriter struggling for inspiration begins to fathom the origin of the universe – the underlying question being “how did we get here?” Malick’s vision is much grander but the question still stands and is as pertinent in Jack’s adult life as it is in his childhood curiosity; a constant nagging “why?”
Whether you see this as arrogant or humbling is open to interpretation and it’s easy to see how this could be seen as pretention on Malick’s part. The Tree Of Life manifests itself as a kind of cinematic Necker cube – a film which can exist in two contradictory states at once, depending on your perspective. On the one hand, it’s an awe-inspiring and intensely powerful work of spiritual allegory but turn your head and it’s a pretentious collection of metaphysical mumbo jumbo only fit for display as an executive screen saver.
Regardless of your viewpoint there’s no denying its aesthetic appeal as it’s a visual masterpiece; cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki capturing some of the most exquisite images – the fragility of a newborn child’s foot held by its adoring father, the kaleidoscopic beauty of a church’s stained glass windows, the speckled lances of sunlight which illuminate the O’Brien’s home. Every single frame could be mounted proudly above any mantelpiece.
The Tree Of Life eschews a traditional narrative which viewers might find frustrating; its non-linear structure and skeletal plot might leave audiences struggling to empathise with the family’s domestic problems. But it’s a film which is very much felt rather than directly explained, much like how memories of childhood come in half-remembered fragments and often idealised snap shots. Much of what is conveyed is unsaid but captured with a look, a feeling, and an almost childlike intuition – the delicate and strained tensions of a marriage, the petty rivalries and jealousies of childhood and the setbacks which threaten to undermine their relationships.
This wouldn’t be possible if it wasn’t for Brad Pitt’s subtly nuanced performance which is easily a career best. There’s no doubt that Mr O’Brien loves his children but without realising it, he’s creating a family that fears more than loves him; one of forced rather than earned respect. One can’t help but hear the echoes of Tyler Durden from 1999’s Fight Club when he said, “Our fathers were our role models for God. If our fathers bailed, what does that tell you about God?” This certainly provokes a question in the young Jack which echoes in his mind for years, “Why should I be good if you’re not?” – a question addressed to both his father’s ferocious temper and the unfairness of God’s perceived indifference.
It’s easy to read a deeply religious message into The Tree Of Life. Jack is constantly whispering “Where are you?” as if he’s searching for a higher power that he’s been told exists. But it isn’t necessary to be religious to appreciate the film’s spirituality or its metaphysical meditations.
There’s a scene in which one dinosaur approaches another wounded dinosaur and places a claw on its neck for a few moments before moving on. As a realistic depiction of animal behaviour, it’s ridiculous and it’s played with such sincerity that it leaves the film wide open to mockery but what is Malick trying to say here? Man, unique of all creatures on earth has the ability to defy his own evolution – we’re no longer driven by instinct; it’s possible to make a choice. Is this the compromise between Natural Law and Grace that Jack’s parents would agree upon? Mercy? Empathy?
Again, the wise words of Carl Sagan seem appropriate, “The size and age of the Cosmos are beyond ordinary human understanding. Lost somewhere between immensity and eternity is our tiny planetary home. In a cosmic perspective, most human concerns seem insignificant, even petty. And yet our species is young and curious and brave and shows much promise”.
It’s certainly not for everyone; many people won’t have the patience for its long running time and may baulk at its existential musing but Malick’s film is an outstanding achievement – one which marvels at the simple existence of life and one which lesser film makers wouldn’t even dare attempt. It’s unlike any film you’re likely to see and is quite simply, awesome.