Review: The Tree of Life

on Friday, May. 20th

The Tree of Life is maddening, exhilarating, gorgeous, ponderous, insightful, pretentious, epic, shallow, beautiful, and strange — essentially the apotheosis of Terrence Malick’s entire career. It will divide audiences like few films have in recent years.

The movie, which exists as a metaphysical meditation and a lyrical poem, focuses – at a microcosmic level – on the story of Jack, a jaded, middle aged man (played by Sean Penn) scarred by the memories of an oppressive upbringing by his father (Brad Pitt), as well as the untimely death of his younger brother.

Like all Malick movies, however, the plot is simply window dressing for the grand philosophical questions the director has been chasing for nearly four decades: the struggle between nature and grace, the duality of man, the meaning of life, and a sense of understanding and reconciliation amidst the chaos and suffering of it all.

While the film makes several missteps and is saddled with an inelegant conclusion, the sheer audacity and vision of a director willing to tackle these weighty metaphysical questions in such an unconventional, non-mainstream manner must be applauded.

The Tree of Life opens and closes with a shot of a beautiful, unearthly light that could very well represent the light of “God.” It then proceeds with a Biblical quote from Job, the prophet whose righteousness was tested through suffering. Would Job renounce God if He was to test him with calamity, or would he remain true and steadfast in his conviction?

The calamity in this case is the tragic death of Jack’s younger brother, who died in combat at the age 19 many years ago. Through several voiceovers – the primary dialogue in a movie that communicates mostly through images – we hear characters’ hushed prayers, laments and frustrated questions to an omnipresent (but distant) God.

In response to her son’s death, the mother asks and prays, “Why?”

Malick’s visual answer to her question is undoubtedly one of The Tree of Life’s most audacious and confounding sequences, itself a throwback to that other frustrating, brilliant visionary recluse, Stanley Kubrick, and his masterpiece 2001. The audience embarks on a gorgeous, wordless cinematic tour of the history of creation, from the majestic beauty of the cosmos to the violence of the Big Bang to the first stirrings of life in the primordial soup to dinosaurs walking the Earth to a small asteroid colliding with the planet.

The random death of one young man seems trivial when measured against the balance of time, space, evolution and the origin of life.

Yet, it is also a random act of violence, a fortuitous eruption, that somehow inspired the entirety of creation on Earth.

Malick, a deeply thoughtful director who studied philosophy at Harvard and Oxford, reflects on the interconnectedness and interdependence of all living things, no matter how miniscule or magnificent. The death of a brother lingers profoundly in the life of his emotionally damaged sibling just as the Big Bang reverberates throughout the cosmos, and a relatively small meteorite crash instigates a cataclysmic ripple of death for the dinosaurs.

This belabored, but nonetheless fascinating, rumination on the duality and interconnectedness of life is further engendered in Jack by his mother, played by an ethereal Jessica Chastain, who teaches her children that there are two ways through life: the way of grace or the way of nature. The former, personified by the mother, loves unconditionally and accepts suffering and humiliation, while the latter, personified by Pitt, seeks only to please itself, have others please it, and finds reasons to be unhappy despite being surrounded by blessings.

In his National Geographic segment, Malick visits this theme during the age of the CGI dinosaurs. A large dinosaur, upon witnessing a smaller, wounded animal, triumphantly and inexplicably plants his foot on its head. In the grand scheme of life, per Malick, nature’s brute strength and cruelty are embedded in our very DNA.

A majority of the film centers on Jack’s childhood relationship with his parents and two younger siblings.  Brad Pitt, with his tense, square jaw and simmering intensity, conveys an imposing  presence in the lives of the children as a bitter disciplinarian who values power and strength as a means to success.

To read the rest of this review, visit Goatmilk.

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