"There are two ways through life: the way of nature, and the way of Grace. You have to choose which one you'll follow." - spoken in voice-over by Jessica Chastain
What can one truly say about Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life, just the director's fifth film in 38 years, that would do a film as powerful and as unique as this any justice whatsoever. It is a humbling film. A film that makes one wonder just how one can manage to communicate what it meant to them. Meager words cannot describe what happens up there on that screen. This is an almost indescribable cinematic experience, but I will try my best to articulate just what it is that makes The Tree of Life the best and most inimitable film of 2011 (and perhaps the past several years as well) and the transcendent filmgoing experience that it inevitably happens to be - so much so that literal droves of middle class moviegoers are marching angrily out of their respective local theaters as if a mob of Philistines, unable to comprehend exactly what they have just witnessed.
Sharing a holy affinity of sorts with Kubrick's 2001, Malick, after a brief inductory salvo, takes us back to what one supposes is the big bang (it is the big bang, right?) and lets his story work its way up from there. After what seems like a fractal-crazed spirograph gone haywire, or perhaps a psychedelic homage to Stan Brackage, or more appropriately a FX-redux (and for the most part, NOT computer generated) of the penultimate space trip in the aforementioned 2001, and after a brief respite in an allegorical Jurassic Park, Malick's epic tale brings us to the present day of the story - the American suburban life of the 1950's. This is where we come upon the archetypal American family - the stern father with shattered dreams who has the ability to show both love and bitterness in one fell swoop; the dreamer mother who searches for answers in the sky as she points up to show her baby boy "that's where God lives"; and the three sons who are stuck somewhere in the middle of these two opposing forces of nature, or God, or what have you.
Brad Pitt is the archetypal 1950's father figure, his flattop standing as a symbol of his societal formality, his jutting chin acting as a constant reminder of his lost bitter pride and anger toward that same said societal formality. His fists clenched with self-hatred, at once loving and brutal, Pitt's father (never given a name beyond Mr. O'Brien) is a whirlwind of misplaced rage and resentment. Though never given the typical manner of storytelling so unnecessarily requisite in narrative filmmaking, this may very well be the most complex character the actor has ever tackled - and tackle it he most certainly does. His wife, the film's Earth mother of sorts is played by the all-but-unknown Jessica Chastain in a performance that makes one imagine a rather gossamer Garbo. Where Pitt's father is demanding and uncompromising, Chastain's mother is benevolent and kind-hearted.
But this is really a story of the children who are the main focal point of Malick's narrative - or what works as narrative. There are three children, led by the eldest Jack who is played by a remarkable Hunter McCracken in his film debut that will hopefully lead to a deservingly long career. It is these children, and especially Jack, who are the veritable heart and soul of Malick's movie. We watch as Jack and his brothers fill their young lives with an exuberance of childhood values and we also watch as Jack's inner turmoil (the abuse of his father, the smothering of his mother, his realization that he is more like him than her) fills him with a certain amount of dread for the future. Once grown, we then see jack as an adult Sean Penn (and as far as I can recollect, the only contemporary character ever put into a Malick film) still trying to deal with the wages of fear that stood in as his childhood. The final moments of the film see an adult Jack (Penn's surprisingly small role works as a glorified cameo of sorts) on a beach, surrounded by all those souls from his past. It is a remarkable ending that must be seen to be appreciated.
With a story strung together as if in a dream, never truly realizing more than a few sentences at a time, Malick gives us bits and pieces of conversation letting us in on this world only within the nooks and crannies of these broken pieces. Made to resemble something we can look at and reach longingly for but never quite touch, The Tree of Life, done with more than your usual amount of disembodied voice-over, is Malick's most ephemeral yet also most living work of cinema yet. With fragmented moments and recalled memory upon memory upon memory (if one wanted to sound pretentious, one could quite rightfully call the film a cinematic exercise in Proustian literary ideals - a creative non-fiction masterpiece even) this may be the least accessible of Malick's works (with each film, the auteur becomes less and less narrative-minded) and may send packs of wild moviegoers out into the starry dynamo of the night clamoring for their money back (true story) but in the end it is what we in the business would call (and I don't say this often for fear of the word losing its thunder) a masterpiece. [07/17/11]