A child sits patiently, waiting, his eyes brimming with hope and expectation. He has yet to experience pain and suffering, naive in his contemplation for that constant positivity. The child cries, his father’s hand still emotionally imprinted on his left cheek. As he weeps he starts to hurt, his one single idol self-combusting after the conclusion of a duel with the real world. This is a film about transcendence, but more than that it is simply about the willingness to love and the desire for reciprocation. This is Terrence Malick’s sixth film and it is an incredible achievement.
As children we are always expected to respect our elders. The Tree of Life deals with a sincere loving household; churchgoers and intrepid followers of God marking them out as well meaning people, conscious of the love that surrounds them. Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain play the parents. She is complete in her religion, proud of believing in that all-conquering love, divine, but seemingly unable to maintain any form of discipline. He is the definition of muscular Christianity, domineering, determined, but with an undercurrent of fear. They are the defining influence on their children, from which the eldest, Jack seems to struggle, often finding himself questioning his own pure, angelic actions when the motives of his father are often considered evil. How can one child exemplify himself in an idyllic manner when he is being ostracised by his father for questioning decisions that are quite blatantly self-centred and egocentrical. Cutting to the modern-day, we are exposed to the melancholy routine of Jack as an adult, played by Sean Penn. He awakens to the blissful, white of his bedroom, and despite mechanically going about in similar routine, we are still reminded of that child’s inner turmoil, the reflective, despairing nature of his soul still apparent through his eyes. Returning swiftly, in what is a fairly quick, transitional film in places, we are plunged back into the younger Jack’s life as he continues in desperation to try and balance the terms that life deals us. Love, goodness, wholesome being are weighed equally with fear, death, and greed. How can we so be so intently sure of our own soul? How can we ever be certain that we stray not from the path of good onto that of evil? Jack demonstrates that we can’t fervently love someone, if it’s a superficial act. How can he trust his mother, when he can’t even relate to her?
Passionately infused with all the creativity that Terrence Malick has to offer, this film has been approximately 33 years in the making. It shows, but you get the sense that through this personal piece Malick goes even further, detailing how film-making should be as precise an art as possible. If you look to some degree of depth at the formal-aesthetic value of film study, then you should come to a conclusion based upon one idea that film matters for its artistic merits. The director here is so intricate and so deeply engrossed in developing something of worth that he is able to concentrate on the integral ideas of creating the touches that make it artistic, incorporating stylistic devices and themes throughout. Malick is renowned for not being an incredibly personal, outgoing, charismatic man, but unlike Lars Von Trier he lets every single one of his films do the talking. Through The Tree of Life we are given the rare opportunity to understand sections of his mind, his ideas of family values, about love, about life, about death and about transcendentalism. It culminates in something that harks back to the era of Andrei Tarkovsky, when so many of his films contained ideas of the metaphysical. Two different directors, but both distinctly personal.
Many critics have suggested that the film in itself is pretentious tosh, a mirage of Kodak moments, but it’s more than that. The metaphysical argument can be plucked from the hat if we’re to solely focus on the imagery, and/or mesmeric tone, but it’s the quiet moments that really make this a film open for interpretation. Film should be challenging an audience to think beyond the realm of cautiously constructed conclusion. Tree of Life is such a curious piece that you would, as a result, strain the brain waves finding a conclusive answer. I have an opinion: I believe that it is a piece designed to eradicate death from the equation. I believe that Malick is trying to say that we never die, we simply live on beyond any conception of modern scientific thinking. You may not agree, but honestly, film should from time to time study the possibilities beyond our control. We’ve seen it occasionally throughout the history of the art-house movement, but it’s rare and important that mainstream audiences are forced to rethink their ideology on film, because breathing in new air from time to time changes your perspective. After all, you don’t look at a Picasso or Van Gogh and automatically know the message. Much like these forms of art, film should possess directors who are willing to profess their own ambiguous messages for the world to discuss. There’s no real harm in that.
This is an absolutely stunning piece, which will only grow and grow, until we can look back on it in retrospect and acknowledge its role in the progression of our modern cinema. The themes and ideas are valid and worthwhile, the acting, particularly from Hunter McCracken as Jack is inspired, but it is the input of a directors own thoughts that excites me so. It is so pleasurable to think that Terrence Malick has potentially answered any questions through The Tree of Life; his ideologies on film becoming more apparent.