American film director Terrence Malick’s fifth feature film release, in four decades in the business, The Tree Of Life, is a film that, in parts, has some of the greatest techniques and moments ever recorded in film history. It also has some fatal narrative flaws that prevent it from outright greatness as an overall work of art, and possibly the worst ending to a near-great film since Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 classic, Rashomon, while at the same time having one of the most self-indulgent and showoffy endings to a film since Federico Fellini’s 8Â½. More reprehensible than anything the film does, positively or negatively, is how utterly over the top some praise of the film has been, and how utterly ridiculous some of the criticism of the film has been. Granted, some of this has been generated by Malick, and the promotional efforts for the film, but, frankly, many big name, and lesser name critics, have simply imbued and misconstrued their own critical lack and imaginative dead rot into their reviews, and missed the boat on this film, from some of its most basic elements through its more nuanced themes and evocations.
The film follows the life and times of a typical small town Texas family in the middle of the 20th Century. No specific dates are ever given, but the bulk of the family portion of the film seems to commence a few years after World War Two, and end about two decades later, at the height of the Vietnam War. Fashion and car models are really the only indicators of time in these sections, although it is interesting to note that neither of the two parental figures in the film, known simply as Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt) and Mrs. O’Brien (Jessica Chastain), seem to age, even in the seemingly chronologically logical portions of the film (as opposed to the obviously dream or fantasy portions). The film opens with a brief recounting of the family at hand. We see a whirlwind of years go by, only to end with a screeching halt when the family is informed of the death of one of their three sons. We are never sure which one, save for finding out that Sean Penn plays an adult version of the oldest, rebellious son Jack (we know this only from the credits, a major editorial gaffe), who is now a successful businessman (in what field we are never shown) in a large city which seems to be modern Chicago. Through his character we find out that one of the younger brothers has died at 19, and his death impacted the family tremendously. That this information comes via telegram, and we know Mr. O’Brien is a veteran, we can assume that the son was killed in Vietnam, although this is never explicitly stated. In fact, the film explicitly states little of external markings regarding the family, thus rendering them truly All-American. The mother quickly goes into agonal convulsions and the father loses a grip on his emotions. The problem is this occurs mere minutes into the film, to characters we have had no experiences with. We cannot feel their pain to the degree the characters do, so viewers are left with an odd sensation of being manipulated. And this is only amplified by having one of the most realistic and potentially gut-wrenchingly great moments in a cinematic family drama being utterly wasted when, in an attempt to console the mother, an older female neighbor says to her that she still has two boys left. There is a brief moment on actress Chastain’s face that speaks loads of what she is thinking, and at its best, this film conveys this better than any film I’ve seen; even more so than Andrei Tarkovsky’s magnificent The Mirror. But, as powerful a moment as this still is, it is many points down on the artistic and emotional Richter scale for films than it could be had Malick not made the narrative blunder of having the film’s pivotal moment occur when his characters are strangers – nobodies — to viewers. Then, after a few minutes of spiritual psyche-rendering, the film extends into its praised and derided 2001: A Space Odyssey-like fugue sequence. The problem with this sequence is that it goes on, literally, almost twice as long as Kubrick’s film ending transit beyond the infinite, and because it has not had a couple of hours of gradual emotional and intellectual build up to it, it lacks much of the impact that Kubrick’s visual tour de force had. Furthermore, Kubrick’s ending was suffused with poesy and true wonder. People walked out of that film asking, what the fuck?, yet loving it. Malick’s fugue is eminently definable. First off, despite many repetitions of certain memes, such as this, from the film’s Wikipedia entry based upon many reviews —
The film cuts to a dramatization of the Big Bang. As the galaxies expand and planets are formed, Jack’s voice is heard, asking various existential questions. At other points in the film, these questions and observations are made by other voices in his family, including his younger self. On the newly formed Earth, volcanoes erupt and microbes begin to form. Eventually, the camera settles on a beach, where it reveals a large dinosaur lying with a fatal gash on its side. In a forest, a small dinosaur is wary of predators. On a river bank, a small dinosaur lies wounded. A predator emerges and examines the wounded dinosaur. The predator grabs the wounded dinosaur’s neck with its foot, preparing for the kill. However, the predator reconsiders as he watches the wounded dinosaur struggle against him. The predator wanders off.
— much of what is reported on the film, and especially this sequence, is demonstrably false. First, nowhere in the film is there a portrayal of the Big Bang. What is actually shown is galactic formation out of primal gases. We then see a fugue of life which, predictably, cuts by many main events in favor of more well known ones (such as the end of the Mesozoic Era via an asteroid, which likely killed off the dinosaurs, even though a far bigger extinction event occurred at the end of the Paleozoic Era, and led to the rise of the dinosaurs). And we do not see a large dinosaur on a beach, but an injured plesiosaur. But, worst of all, in this fugue, is the musical scoring. In 2001, songs like The Blue Danube connoted power and majesty while simultaneously imparting a comic sense of carousel-like fun. Most of Malick’s fugue is filled with melodramatic operas and dirges, often quite inaptly applied to the sometimes ethereal and spectral images of life’s evolution. Nowhere is fun allowed. This is serious business. Then, almost an hour into The Tree of Life we get to the truly magisterial family life section, wherein Malick may have, if he lopped off the beginning and end of this film, created his greatest and most innovative work. Yes, there are the well known Malick voiceovers, and they are used more sparingly and superbly here than in any of his other films. We see brief and extended snippets of family life, and we get to finally truly know these characters, well over an hour after their most devastating familial moment, but not though the voiceovers as much as a language unique to this film, alone in the Malick canon, and that is a language of bodily, character, and cinematic, gists.
In watching the film, and through every moment of this 80-90 minute section, out of the film’s 138 minute entirety, I kept thinking of how wasted the opening reveal of the death in the family was, because this main section of the film is perhaps the greatest exercise of narrative through almost purely visual means in world cinematic history. Not even the greatest of silent films (that tragically murdered art form) can match this perfect cinema. We see the growth and relationships of all the family members with each other, with the three sons stealing the film: Hunter McCracken as Jack, the oldest son, Laramie Eppler as the middle son (the most sensitive, looking remarkably like a child of Pitt’s, and the likely son that is killed), and Tye Sheridan as the youngest son — the “Mama’s Boy”. But, we also get histories of the parents. Even more so than Mr. O’Brien, Chastain’s Mrs. O’Brien is ageless, looking the same when her 19 year old boy’s son is announced as she does when pregnant with her oldest. We see her coddling of the boys, and her arguments with her husband over discipline. We also see Mr. O’Brien’s pride in his military service, his religious beliefs, his raising of his sons, and his work, in an industrial plant that eerily evokes the one central to Michelangelo Antonioni’s The Red Desert. It is this pride which sets up the film’s other great moment (or I should say greatest, of a dozen or more), and one, unlike the neighborly comment, that does not go to waste. This is when, after a streak of rebelliousness in Jack has been shown, and we hear him whisper for his father’s death, and we see a moment where he could bring this about by disengaging a car jack that supports the family car that his father is working under, but refrains, we learn that Mr. O’Brien’s plant is closing, and he has to either lose his job or accept a job no one wants, and move the family, presumably to Chicago? We then get a brief soliloquy wherein Mr. O’Brien bemoans the unfairness of the fact that he’s striven to do right, he’s served his country, he has never missed a day’s work, and he’s tithed his church every Sunday, yet he is now reduced to unemployment, or groveling and uprooting his family. His words, and how they are spoken, can resonate to almost every adult who has striven to be merely ‘good’ in life. Then, we get a bit of a payoff, when he shares his thoughts with Jack, and the oldest son admits he is more like his father, while the other boys are more like “her,” not “mom,” a significant word choice in delineating their relationship and its struggles. The family soon leaves their small Texas town, which some report as being Waco, although no evidence is given of this — the film was shot mostly in and around Smithville, a town southeast of Austin. As we see the family looking back at their home, as they drive away for the final time, one almost senses that, like in the 1960 film, The Time Machine, everything we have seen portrayed in this film’s depiction of eons of life’s development has been centered on this Texas town, neighborhood, and family plot of land — from eruptions of ancient volcanoes, to life’s formation, to the circling of sharks overhead, when it was beneath waves, to the near deathly encounter of a small duck-billed dinosaur at the jaws and claws of a predator, and so on.
We then get to the film’s ending, which is another ten minutes or so of etherea (dream or afterdeath?, as all three young versions of the brothers are seen) and schmaltz, wherein images of the dead and past people from Jack’s life, including the ever young members of his clan (calling 8Â½, calling 8Â½!), are seen walking on a beach, then the Bonneville Salt Flats, and all are (cringe) heading toward the light of the sun, like beautiful rejects from a George Romero Dead film. The movie then ends on a recurring living flame-like entity that’s a none too subtle evocation of a godhead. With this final succession of banalities, each one of which can be easily descried, by a discerning viewer, as coming from the prior visual and narrative cliché that preceded it, that same viewer is left internally screaming, “No, no, please, no . . . don’t end it here. Take another five minutes, if needed, and do something profound, something only a great artist could. For God’s sake, don’t end this film like this.” Unfortunately, just as Rashomon‘s end founders on the parting of clouds, and the taking of an infant out into sunlight, The Tree of Life is too rooted in its own negatively airy inertia to reascend at this point. By contrast, Malick’s own masterpiece, his 1998 remake of The Thin Red Line, was a perfect blend of restrained wonder. This film is self-indulgent and showoffy at its most critical moments, and, coupled with the deadly narrative gaffe of misplacing the film’s most crucial moment of gravitas, not even the utterly perfect 80-90 minutes of the film’s main body is enough to save the film’s descent from greatness to near-miss at such. Had Malick simply edited the film in chronological order, even with the over-indulgent and overly long fugue, and placed the death, and the scene with the older female neighbor right before the sappily cringe-inducing ending, I think the film could still have gotten over the bar to greatness. But he didn’t, and this shockingly poor editing choice does its damage, and basically urinates on the intelligent viewer.
Another critical misfire on the film (no, not the constant evocation of tone poem when the critic obviously is clueless as to the term’s meaning) is one, again, generated by Malick, the film’s publicity, and an utterance by Penn’s character, although that does not absolve the many critical cribs so-called critics have indulged in regarding this film; and that is the sort of yin/yang dichotomy the parents are supposed to represent. Mr. O’Brien is posited as nature and his wife as grace, yet, given the father’s role as taskmaster, there really is nothing natural about him. Working in an industrial plant, a serial patent filer, and frustrated Classical musician, he clearly is an avatar and exemplar of the mid-20th Century mantra of man transforming nature. It reeks from Pitt in every scene. He is discipline and restraint, not nature, which does as it will. He is the very antithesis of this critical misposit. Equally bewildering is the claim of Mrs. O’Brien’s representing grace when, in fact, Malick’s camera (as is its wont) virtually fetishizes and sexualizes Chastain’s body, down to ever last square inch. Literally, from satisfying potential foot fetishes with scenes of her naked feet frolicking in grass and water, to the wetness of her dresses playing with the garden hose with her sons, to the looks of desire that fill the young Jack’s eyes, to the almost nonstop climaxing she engages in at the slightest non-diurnal moments, to the sexualized gropes Pitt applies to her in restraining her during an argument, to a scene wherein Jack visualizes his mother’s body floating under the tree of life they have planted in their yard, it is clear that Mrs. O’Brien is nothing akin to grace, but somewhere far closer to being a hybrid of an earth mother (speaking of embodiments of nature) and the ultimate Eisenhower Era MILF.
The screenplay, by Malick, obviously, has problems, but, at its best, it is on par with the very best of films ever made. The acting is uniformly good, with only the script sometimes undercutting well wrought and realized performances. The film score, by Alexandre Desplat, is as hit and miss as the screenplay, but the film’s rock is its peerless cinematography, by Emmanuel Lubezki (who filmed Malick’s 2006 The New World). The film won the Palme D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, but such accolades did not stop a number of people from walking out of the film’s fugue sequence midway through; and this after I was pleasantly surprised that a noon showing of an intelligent film would fill half a theater, albeit with 90% of the patrons being senior citizens. If all art can be judged by whether it measures up against those masterworks that define and embody greatness, then The Tree Of Life is inarguably a failure. However, like his first film, 1973’s Badlands, it is a great failure, as well a glorious one, and if all works of art that failed were as great and glorious as this one our culture would be far better off. Despite my caveats, I am.