This film will definitely win the “most controversial film of the year” award. Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life has enchanted some people, who say that Malick has inherited Kubrick’s intellectual throne. Still other audiences have walked out and I have even seen signs at theaters stating that no refunds will be given “if audiences don’t understand the film.” Good or bad, The Tree of Life is one of the landmark releases of the year.
But is it also among the best films of the year?
Yes, yes it is.
It is a film that is not afraid to ask important questions while at the same time keeping its eye on the human spirit. Most filmmakers try to focus on philosophy or humanity, rather than both. Malick has, after decades, demonstrated that he is the new great closet genius of cinema.
It is very difficult to describe what happens in The Tree of Life. 10 different people could say ten different things, all of which may technically be correct. I do have my own theory, but I cannot say without spoiling the ending. In a nutshell, it is about how the dynamics of a 1950s Texas family parallel the creation of the universe. In a more straightforward way, the film follows the O’Brien family, who have recently lost a son. Jack O’Brien (Sean Penn) reminisces about his adolescence in a small Texas town (specifically, Waco), in which his father known only as Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt) was at times seems abusive and at other times. Jack grows to hate his father, who he thinks doesn’t love him. His past is shown through glimpses and flashes, in which a times Jack is happy to play with his siblings and at other times seems is only too eager to get out of Waco. This is all interspersed with scenes of prehistoric life and pictures from the Hubble telescope.
Like I said, I can understand why some people will be turned off by the film. It is highly unconventional in its editing (most of the scenes are told through glimpses and flashes) and its nonlinear style (yes, there is a flashback to roughly thirteen trillion years ago and the ending seems to take place outside of time). Malick seems just as obsessed with showing audiences beautiful scenes of nature rather than telling a story. All of his films have been marked by their natural settings, but Malick is going above and beyond his usual look at nature with this film. Releasing The Tree of Life in a summer of films that resemble paint by numbers kits was quite a brave idea.
It is also very hard to talk about the performances. We are meant to get an abstract idea of a person rather than a complete image. Pitt’s performance is good, because he manages to convey far more about his character than his kids (who are the anchors of the story) can ever understand. He is an inventor and a talented musician, but is depressed with his blue-collar life. He is not cruel, although he does manage to do so mean things. He also shows himself as a very loving man.
In short, he is any father. I did not grow up in rural Texas, but some of the scenes still reminded me of my childhood (particularly a scene involving a slamming door). In some ways, it is easy to see how Malick got the idea of the family as the universe. Most people gain their wisdom of the world not from God, but from their mother and father. Indeed, for a vast majority of the runtime, I thought that the film was about how God does not “answer” questions because he has already given us the answers we need in that family dynamic. It is a chaotic dynamic that has existed for eons (as shown during the creation scenes) and will continue to exist long after humanity is extinct. The film was from the POV of God (rather than any of the human character) and subscribed to Paley’s “watchmaker” analogy.
I thought that, but I no longer believe that, especially after the ending. It will be seen as controversial to many people. There are people who are still debating what the “Star Child” at the end of 2001 was (by the way, it’s the next stage of human evolution) and many wonder where everyone is at the end of this film. In some ways, this was the only way to discuss The Tree of Life in any meaningful way. If we are to spend our lives looking for meaning, then we must be required to use our own minds and make sure that we understood the wisdom that came to us from the most unlikely places.
Malick has always been a tricky filmmaker, in terms of his reclusiveness and his uncaring view of the mainstream audiences. If they do not understand his films, it is not his fault. Still, every one of Malick’s films (at least, the ones that I have seen) have been masterpieces of construction, made by a highly intelligent man who may actually hold the answer to the meaning of life. This is his most ambitious one to date, and one that manages to capture a certain truth of the human condition. The Tree of Life is not just one of the best films of the year, but will likely be one of the best of the decade.