It’s not wholly inaccurate to think of filmmaking as existing on a continuum: on one end, a direct, straightforward assemblage of images designed to serve as a simple delivery device for plot; on the other, a purely impressionistic blast of sound and vision that wants nothing more than to convey an emotional state of being. Most movies fall closer to the first terminus, telling linear narratives that, though dressed up with standard visual clues (the use of light and dark to convey emotion, the use of quick cuts to create a sense of energy or excitement, etc.), are still ultimately about watching a protagonist try to achieve a central goal before the end credits. Yet one of the wonderful things about Terrence Malick — and one of the things that makes The Tree of Life such a masterful, glorious film — is his ability to move closer to the middle of that continuum, to exist in the tension between telling a story along A-B-C lines and using the medium of film to create a heightened emotional state as fragile but real as the moment you fall in love, and equally as challenging to unpack or explain. Malick’s latest film is a rapturous one, a work wrought by the hand of a gifted storyteller who knows precisely how to use a confluence of music and motion to communicate whole chunks of story at once; it’s as if Malick feels the film so deep in his bones that his mere belief is enough to transmit it whole into our hearts and minds. He matches elliptical bursts of whispered dialogue with timely cuts and perfect visuals to instantly create and send entire universes out into the night. Malick plants his feet and his flag in the middle of the filmmaking spectrum, owning the land like no other. No one else does what he does; not like this. Yet The Tree of Life isn’t a mere technical achievement: it’s a heartrending, gorgeously realized story of life and death that wrestles with questions of love, justice, and the way our families shape our fate. It’s engaging, challenging, uncompromising; it is unique, and daring, and the reason we go to the movies.
At its core, The Tree of Life is about a postwar family in a small Midwestern town, and the three young boys who find themselves caught between the pull of an overbearing father (Brad Pitt) and nurturing mother (Jessica Chastain). Jack (Hunter McCracken), the eldest, bears the brunt of his father’s mercurial moods, though the two younger boys, R.L. (Laramie Eppler) and Steve (Tye Sheridan), are targets as well. That’s about it as far as superficial actions go. Yet to reduce the film to those sentences feels cheap and ugly, as if Malick were only interested in telling a family story and doing it simply. He’s got his sights set much higher, and his skill matches his scope. Through the use of stirring nature photography and special effects, he skitters around the universe, sliding through time like a creator, charting moments from the beginning of time through the formation of the planets and the dinosaur era, then on into our current epoch. This is what his story’s really about: the constancy of time, and the fact that every generation and every evolutionary step is defined by the knowledge of its own end. If that all sounds like it shouldn’t go together at all, well, you’re forgiven for thinking so. It’s a hefty task, to attempt to film a synthesis of suffering and theodicy in just over two hours, but Malick makes it work.
There’s a great short story from Jonathan Safran Foer titled “A Primer for the Punctuation of Heart Disease” that uses typographical shortcuts to convey complex feelings, mixing the symbols together to create conversations whose depth and nuance mimic real life in wonderful ways. This is probably the easiest comparison for The Tree of Life, which uses a whole host of filmmaking tools to convey scenes within scenes, moments on top of moments, and ultimately a cacophony of emotions and ideas that resolve into something transcendent. Malick’s film is largely about the acceptance of suffering — the young Jack reels from his father’s barbs, and the family deals with a tragedy later on — and it does so in profoundly honest and searching ways. The film opens with a line from the book of Job, chapter 38, which comes after Job, who has watched his family die and livelihood evaporate, shouts out to God for answers and justice, only to have God answer him, “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me, if you understand.” The Tree of Life is Malick’s attempt to understand, to try and get one fleeting slippery grip on the notion of destiny and choice and pain. The film is firmly rooted in a searching faith that’s born of Christianity but not piety; of faith, but not of judgment; and of sorrow, but not despair. Malick knows that to believe is to feel pain, and he expertly charts the emotional and spiritual growth of a young boy who howls out to the universe for salvation from his torment. Vitally, Malick comes to the conclusion that belief and pain aren’t meant to cancel each other out, as if one cured or killed the other; rather, each is part and parcel of the other. It works because at no moment does Malick choose to be aloof or withdrawn or basically too cool to talk about this stuff; he fully engages with sentimentality and happiness and worry and hate, and his honesty absolutely sells the film.
There isn’t a single wasted moment or ugly shot or unthinking image. The cinematography from Emmanuel Lubezki (with whom Malick collaborated on The New World) makes dazzling use of natural light, which is, I believe, the only method used to illuminate the film; that is to say, lamps and porchlights and such are used, but no additional lights or reflectors that typically go into the production process are deployed here. The resulting product is unbelievably warm and gorgeous, littered with frames that feel like masterpieces that last for only a moment. So many of those beautiful scenes all but disappear on arrival, which is tied to Malick’s larger goal of creating the kind of fully realized world that feels discovered by the viewer instead of performed for the camera. Malick’s team of editors are key here, too, making apt use of cuts in everything from tense scenes around a dinner table to effects-heavy ruminations on the beginning of life.
That sense of gliding in and out of this family’s life at different moments affects the performances, too. Pitt nails the role of a frustrated man who loves his boys but doesn’t know how to say it; who considers himself a failure, thwarted by his more successful peers; who is angry at the world for reasons he could never explain. These layers to his character are peeled back as the film unspools, and Malick successfully avoids making him some movie-of-the-week monster, keeping him rooted in a way of life caught between striving and achieving. Chastain, as the boys’ mother, is more ethereal, and intentionally so. She’s the gentle spirit to their father’s warrior guide, the one who tells the boys they’re wonderful and beloved. As glimpsed in a shot in which she’s laid out in a glass coffin in the woods — an image that isn’t real, but also sort of is — she’s their fairy tale princess. She and Pitt are guided to play their roles as minimally as possible, though that’s not to say they aren’t capable of emotional eruptions, nor that those outbursts don’t occur; it means that they aren’t always forcing the issue. They’re both fantastic.
I find myself in danger of the kind of infinite regression that Malick avoids: namely, while Malick is able to fall deeper into the film and create a polished and instantly emotionally resonant work, I find that the more I talk about the film, even to praise it, the further from my grasp it seems. I’m no Malick, and I cannot do in 2,000 words even a fraction of what he does in two hours. This is the film’s power, its ability to communicate whole complicated chunks of life and love in glimpses and glances, in the way a father’s finger traces his son’s cheek, in the way a mother weeps in a moment of anguish, in the way a boy gives terrified voice to the wrestling spirits within him. Jack’s mother teaches the boys about the ways of nature and grace: the former is an ungoverned free-for-all that lives on its own pleasure, while the latter is a higher state of being that folds the acceptance of trials into their survival. Malick has made a movie all about the state of grace that itself exists in that very state. It’s a swirling, tornadic vision of evolution and fate, of birth and afterlife, that opens up its own beating heart in a delicate, loving example. It’s breathtaking in its beauty and sharply joyful in its reflections. Malick has braced himself and answered the grand questions as best he can, and made something unforgettable in the process. The creation becomes the creator.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Houston Film Critics Society and the Online Film Critics Society. He’s also a TV blogger for the Houston Press. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.