Tree of Life, The

Reviewed By Erik Childress
Posted 06/03/11 14:00:00

"Malick Is Not God, But His Search For Him Is Worth A 2nd Look"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

In some form or another, we are all searching for God. Whether it is the supreme being himself, a state of mind or a contradictory peace-loving boogeyman used to scare people into doing the right thing, he certainly works in mysterious ways. For twenty years, the film community wondered what happened to their God, the reclusive Terrence Malick who took two decades off in-between his second and third projects. To say that my own belief in Malick as some ethereal do-no-wrong artist has put me at odds with the true believers in his talents is an understatement worthy of Peter 2:12. It is like watching the inconsistency of Fox News expressing outrage over ridiculously benign topics, only just the opposite; offering praise on elements that produce scorn in most projects not under the fabled Malick watch. Blind faith deserves to be questioned and examined now and again, just as the same manner of scorn is. Sometimes the message does sink in though, as Tree of Life's did with a second viewing; one not without flaws though that will mean different things to people of varying faiths and life paths.

Most of Malick's tale takes place during the mid-20th century in Waco, TX where the filmmaker actually grew up. The O'Brien family is about to get some disturbing news when they are informed (via telegram) that their 19 year-old middle son has died. It's a death that still haunts their oldest, Jack (played as an adult by Sean Penn), who walks around the glass constructions of his home and work as a man trapped. His memories will be shared with us throughout the film as the young Jack (Hunter McCracken) lives through the varying parenting styles in his home. Dad (Brad Pitt) is trying to make men of his three sons through discipline while Mom (Jessica Chastain) is simply content with playing every little boy's favorite game - chase mom around the house and yard.

Jack's path to disillusioned architect did not begin at childhood though as he is just one of countless millions of species that evolved from nothingness. Twenty minutes into the extended flashback, Malick truly does go back to the beginning when volcanoes erupted, cells merged, the dinosaurs came and then were wiped out. (There is no Stephen Stucker voiceover accompaniment.) Actually, these twenty minutes and the twenty that follow is the strongest sequence of the film; a nearly wordless tracing of Earth's expansive life to the more personal evolution of a child from birth to first steps and beyond. It's a striking segment of cinema that is also the closest Malick comes to striking an emotional chord connected with the death that permeates closer with adult Jack in the flashforward than the audience for the remainder of the film.

This is one of the many points that shall be bandied about over the core of the film; a balance between the love that does or does not exist by our spiritual and Earthbound fathers. Life's creation with the Hallmark-like moments of planted trees and the cupping of tiny feet strikes imagery that is ingrained in our psyches to create an emotional spark. Creating an emotional bond with characters we are meeting for the first time is entirely another matter and no easy breeze. As seen through the eyes of Jack, we only catch fleeting moments of the interaction with his deceased brother and there's an awkwardness in dad's reaction of being critical of him when most of his time is spent being critical of his eldest. There's an imbalance early on that creates potential confusion over which child has actually died. One of many areas where a second viewing comes in handy and I was glad to have the opportunity before discussing it further.

Malick's style of torpedoing a scene (as he describes it) in his almost standard two-year editing process has endeared him to many and frustrated the select few of us who would rather see a filmmaker of his artistry cut the experimentation and just tell a damn story. Drink the Kool-Aid or swallow the red pill on Malick and everything taught in film school can just fade away. At least for this special exception. Show, don't tell, doesn't exactly count when every character gets to overcut the images with precisely what they (or Malick) is thinking at that moment. One imagines if Terrence Malick had been listed as the director of Blade Runner, the original theatrical cut would be giving Citizen Kane a run for his money on all-time lists.

Ranting aside on the Church of Malick, The Tree of Life works best when it is being simplistic; connecting the dots between images and emphasizing the search for a father figure that will shape us. Pitt's dad is a failed musician and not doing well on the invention side either. His frustration spills over to his children much the way the Old Testament documents God's hissy fits with the disappointment over his own creation. Jack's earth dad wants better for his boys, pushing them to learn respect and how to defend themselves. His role in the film has been described as "nature" to mom's "grace." But precisely how is nature then defined though? Evolution as opposed to a spiritual belief in a higher power? " You will not call me dad. You will call me father," says the paterfamilias adopting the name that religion has taught us to use during worship. That God we show so much faith in is constantly fighting us for his love through struggle, as evidenced by the constant referencing of Job in the film. Are we sure we aren't looking at things backwards here? Mom's constant playful attitude might be the peace we seek with our creator, but the father occasionally will tell mother nature she's doing it wrong and needs to be more strict.

Watching Jack grow into adolescence through frustration with his father is a natural, if not entirely unique, way to grasp onto our own relationship to a heavenly being. Questions are constantly asked in the voiceover. Is God there? Is he watching? Why does he not grant my requests, choosing to hurt rather than help? The frequent use of looking upwards at staircases and ladders again is hardly restrained, but effective when looking at the expanse above which may hold nothing but our curiosity and dreams. Jack's journey, which is very Freud 101 and, at times, uncomfortably Oedipal takes place at an age when he (like most of us) is beyond the belief in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy and now questions if anyone is really out there. "It's your house. You can kick me out whenever you want to," he says to dad/father who tells his son that "the world lives by trickery." Malick's connection to nature has been evident throughout each one of his films, sometimes to a fault as our soldiers played second fiddle to all the green they were destroying in The Thin Red Line. Find me a wheat field and Malick will show you the fingers ready to touch it. Watching his films it is easy sometimes to assume that he would be OK if us selfish flesh walkers, who would rather destroy than love, were wiped out just like the dinosaurs. He is like a humorless George Carlin which makes it all the more disappointing to see him, ironically, take the Lost finale approach to otherworldly happiness.

The Tree of Life would resonate more without the brooding flashback structure. For all the grief that the Thinredliners gave Spielberg for the bookend he provided to his 1998 WWII epic, it's funny that Malick has more or less done the same thing here with a character looking back upon those that gave him a life he is unsure that he has lived well, all the while walking amongst a collection of the dead that were there with him in his youth. The finale is also a rubber stamp betrayal of both the evolutionary cycle that Malick presents and the slow discontentment of the discovery that what Jack was brought up to believe is all for naught. Whatever you or I believe is immaterial at this moment and Malick cannot have it both ways unless the climax is meant to mirror Terry Gilliam's Brazil.

Frustration aside, which might be inevitable for those who don't genuflect at Malick's altar, The Tree of Life has an astute elegance to the way it tells its story even if the filmmaker cannot help himself from underlining the thematics. It is a film that will mean something different to everyone. I am a son, but not a father, and I suspect those in the latter category will find a greater emotional bond with both the life and the death of the film purely by the osmosis of personal experience. The second hour, which felt more abstract on first glimpse, came into greater appreciation and focus the next time around. A lot like life, perhaps, upon reflection.

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