Malick's 'Tree of Life' plants seed with viewers

June 3, 2011

By Jonathan Miller

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(Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures)
'The Tree of Life' opens in Chicago on June 3.

At its core, The Tree of Life concerns a family, the O’Briens, who live in a town in Texas. The film’s episodes unfold through the 1950s, while some of its scenes are set in the present in a large city.

Tragedy befalls the family, precipitating an examination of its history. Malick wrenches our hearts with a melodramatic overture and then rewinds the clock. 

Malick boldly puts the beginning “in the beginning”, to tell the story of a life in proper detail requires telling the story of all life.  Malick’s camera takes us on a cosmic voyage: to witness the formation of stars and planets, the birth of life on earth and the age of the dinosaurs.  In these eye-popping sequences, The Tree of Life verges on being a big-budget experimental art film.

Unmistakably, Malick’s film has an ambitious scope. The drama in The Tree of Life may be low-key — a boy’s life, his relations to his parents and siblings, the impact on the family of loss — but the tale that Malick tells has much larger implications. Correlating the fine texture of family history with the grand sweep of the cosmos means that, as an artist, Malick is indeed reaching for the stars. He wants to remind us what we all already know: that “the universe” will always be the last line of every street address. The strategy elevates melodrama into philosophical epic. 

From intergalactic grandeur to baby’s first steps: Jack is the O’Brien’s first son. Time passes, Jack grows, the family grows — Jack has one brother, then two.  Mr. O’Brien, played by Brad Pitt, is stern and authoritarian, yet loving, as a father. Mrs. O’Brien, played by newcomer Jessica Chastain, is supportive, nurturing and deferential to her husband. Their distinct styles of “parenting” clearly align with opposing cosmic principles. Mother stands on the side of grace, acceptance, and adaptability; father embodies striving, restless nature. Jack develops between the pull of these two forces. In a pictorial sequence exploring the terrestrial environment, Malick shows a magnificent deep canyon carved by erosion through the rocks of the American west — a time-image that exhibits the effect of the fluid upon the solid, further expounding the interaction of these principles.

Jack binds the present to the past. We follow Jack as an adult, played by Sean Penn, as he goes about his business as an architect. He moves through an alienating megalopolis of contemporary glass and steel skyscrapers, wading through the overloaded world of electronic communication in which so little that is meaningful is ever said. Questioning the world he navigates, Jack wrestles with his identity, the legacy of his upbringing, and his faith. Beyond the loss suffered by one family, Malick describes a larger loss, a world gone to the dogs.

It’s no small matter to build a film around the questions that Malick explores in The Tree of Life. He turns his attention to the unyielding mystery of why we exist and how to live in the absence of certainty. His aim is no less than to craft a cinematic treatise on being and non-being.

Over the years, in a handful of films, Malick has conducted a consistent inquiry. Anyone who has paid attention to his work won’t be surprised to find his camera angling up at the sun streaming through the crown of a tree or plunging underwater, as a voice-over raises a suite of questions. Malick’s palette of imagery corresponds to a spectrum of being; and the tree is his ideal motif: bound to earth by roots, stretching into the sky to drink in the light of a star.

The culmination of Malick’s investigation takes place in a curious abstract landscape where the living and the dead, present and past, mingle. In this mysterious realm, Malick reconciles the worldly and the spiritual.  As a grown man, Jack hugs his younger self and his young adult parents.

Even if ultimate answers exceed our grasp, if the why of existence defies comprehension, it is within our power to define a way to live that has meaning: love is the key component. As the voice of grace explains, without it, life whizzes past, a blur.

Whether a viewer finds Malick’s film exalting and intriguing, or uninvolving and bewildering, it is hard to miss that this is a movie with a message. Urging us to transcend guilt and shame, Terrence Malick uses his tree to plant a seed in our heads, in hopes that it will sprout into the ability to see existence, fleeting and fragile though it is, as truly sublime and awe inspiring, constantly moving and mysterious.