"The Tree Of Life" is the latest poetry reading and montage from Terrence Malick, a filmmaker known for his reclusiveness, large gaps of time between films, and love of interior monologue voice over narration. "The Tree Of Life" is Malick’s most experimental and lyrical film, hovering around the subjective POV of a young boy named Jack from birth to adolescence in suburban Waco, Texas (the director's hometown) in the 50’s, and into his dissatisfied life as a grown up Sean Penn living in the modern day big city, with a brief history of life from the big bang through cell division in the primordial oceans to the rise and fall of dinosaurs, interspersed throughout the film for good measure. There are also portions which take place entirely within an interstitial space between thought and spirit, a bedroom underwater, a red desert, and a beach all of characters find themselves in like the end of Fellini’s 8 ½.
In my opinion Malick had worked himself into a creative corner with his last film “A New World” which added the “twist” of shifting to Pocahontas’s perspective half-way through but otherwise used the same formula that Malick had used in his three previous films of voice over and carefully choreographed nature photography. “The Tree Of Life” also shares these characteristics but makes them more central than ever before. For the first thirty to forty minutes of the film (its hard to keep track of time in a film as dense as this) it’s easy to wonder if a conventional dialogue driven drama will ever begin to emerge.
Once our main character Jack reaches around ten the film becomes a slightly more lucid coming of age story. The conflicts are still largely internal though, the boy wrestling with “the way of nature and the way of grace” epitomized by his relationship with his terrifying/awe inspiring father and loving/naïve mother. Much of the beauty and majesty of the opening minutes which expertly combine a Herzogian eye for nature at its most surreal and Kubrick at his most bombastic and operatic, are held in sharp contrast with the limited world of the boy’s physical life largely consisting of a house, some surrounding woods and fields, and the all consuming tension created by the presence of his father.
This oedipal conflict (son love mommy/pleasure but resents daddy for placing limitations on these and behavior or typical for the time good cop bad cop parenting structure) sandwiched between kaleidoscopic imagery, constantly moving (panning, dollying, craning, but not shaky hand-held) camera work, and some of the most kinetic editing, reminded me instantly of Gaspar Noe’s much maligned and personally beloved “Enter The Void” which is for better or worse kissing cousins with “The Tree Of Life”. If “The Tree Of Life” is a prayer to all of creation, then “Enter the Void” is a hedonistic joy ride to oblivion, at opposite poles of experience the films are remarkably similar. The recent equally mystical, equally impressive, and equally under-understood (though much more subdued), “Uncle Boonme Who Can Recall His Past Lives” falling somewhere between the two, and forming a spiritual trinity, much like the symbolic characters of “Tree Of Life”. It may be helpful to think of the characters are concepts rather than people, "The Tree Of Life" or Sephirot (not that the film adheres to this in anything other than name only, like "Enter The Voids" appropriation of a Tibetan moniker) after all, are the varieties of emanations of God in the physical and immaterial planes in Kaballah, not a literal tree.
The symbolic trinity of the film is not mother, father, son and nor is it the three sons themselves, but mother, father, brother. Though were told the fate of one of the brothers in the film, it’s not simply his end that makes him significant, it’s that his mere existence acted as a reminder for Jack that besides the mother and father “wrestling within me, always wailing...” there are also other people in the world, people that he could in turn be a source of cruelty or kindness. Brother in the genial sense I think we can take to mean as Brother in the universal or spiritual sense, meaning all people (agape). The voice over narrations of both the mother and father are directed at Jack, but it’s important to note that the Jack's reflections seem almost always directed to God."You let a boy drown today. You’ll let anything happen.” to “Please kill him [the father]. Make him go away” to “Before I knew who you were, I believed in you. I recognized you in the streams, the trees, etc”. The beach scene one might be tempted to see as an afterlife, and I flirted with that idea for a moment, but dismissed the thought because :SPOILER:: the brother is the same age he was when Jack moved out of the house, not the age he was when he died at 19. The youngest of the three brothers is also there frozen in time as a child. If this is an afterlife shot, then it’s of a completely subjective afterlife where loved ones appear only in forms which are most emotionally relevant to those observing them and not as they would see themselves. “You’re my child and you’ll always be my child”, taken to an extreme. That’s not Heaven folks, that’s “Solaris”. “We don’t want other worlds, we only want a mirror”. ::SPOILEROVER::
Regardless of where Malick draws his metaphysical lines, the resounding spiritual cry of the film is obvious. Alain Resnais’ "Mon Oncle D’amerique” examined the lives of three people from birth into adulthood through the eyes of evolutionary behaviorist and philosopher Henri Laborit. In that film like “Tree Of Life” we observe human life cycles next to animal and geological ones in a free flowing montage.
Indeed that film also features extensive voice-over narration. The ideas in “Tree Of Life” are not new, in fact they are almost ancient in their simplicity.
The question is of nature vs. nurture, and the almost impossible task of disentangling one from the other, or trying to sort out or remember a particular moment, through a web of ephemeral memories and emotions are lifetime long (and maybe longer) of one being greater than the other.
"The Tree Of Life" is as ambitious as films get in its cinematography, editing, structure, and content. The performances are good, but the editing never really settles down long enough for us to “get to know” the characters or too much of their personalities, and if you are among those for whom drama is the foundation stone of cinema (which is to my ears as arbitrary as saying costume design is the foundation stone of cinema) than “The Tree Of Life” will probably seem like a dull dream of dinosaurs and baby boomer malaise. For me precisely because the film does not lean to heavily on the domestic and inter-personal drama it opens itself up to doing the real business of cinema, which is visually eradicating those boundaries between internal and external perceptions, ideas, and emotions. If anything negative could fairly be said of “The Tree Of Life”, one could make a case for it being, underneath the visual and auditory chutzpah, all too simple in its Oedipal, Biblical, or New Age expressions. The Father only seems to share his fears and the Mother only her hopes, and we spend our longest time with the son as he contemplates the effects of “sin” (ei the possibility that his parents may be wrong, and if “Nothing is true. Everything is permitted”). Malick goes to lengths to make us feel as small in the greater structures of the universe as the son feels as an infant looking at the titanic legs of his parents. Eventually this awe at the world, becomes, at least, in Malick's Americana inner conflict and anxiety, which either we transcend at the point of death (discussed above) or we never stop reflecting on. The last image in the film is a bridge rising out of a morning mist. Does a bridge represent travel itself or an eventual destination on the other side?
"The Tree Of Life" is the most ambitious and accomplished American film I’ve seen since David Lunch’s “Inland Empire” and PT Anderson’s “There Will Be Blood”. This is the type of cinema that will endure and will provoke argument for years to come. It deserves, begs, and screams from the fibers of its celluloid to be seen in a theater on a big screen. If you’re going spend you’re hard earned money on seeing on film this year, then see "Tree Of Life", it is genuine cinema, everything else so far this year, has just been big screen DVD.