You should always put up your guard the minute there is what is called a “critical consensus.” Be suspicious, be very suspicious, when everyone agrees how great something is. Mass consensus usually means word got out early that we’re supposed to like something and critics who are not quite as secure with their intellectual abilities sprint to add to the chorus, lest they be mistaken for one of those dumb barbarians who just don’t get high concept art films. Terrence Malick’s latest has not been untarnished by criticism, but the reviews are overwhelmingly positive – with many of its admirers already throwing the word “masterpiece” around. Well, it won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival while also being booed (I love people who aren’t afraid to be called stupid), neither of which means much considering both Antonioni’s L’Avventura and Lynch’s Wild at Heart were famously booed and awarded the highest honor. (Correction: L’Avventura won the Jury Prize that year while La Dolce Vita took the top honor.)
I walked into the theater with all these warnings swirling in my head; I was prepared for anything, but I still was shoring my senses up against the thundering (possible) over-praise. And I found faults: meandering, pretentious voice-overs (that don’t end) had me convinced that I wasn’t watching a masterpiece, but a fine imitation of one – for a while anyway.
All of my pre-movie suspicions melted away within a half hour. To my surprise what I found is not that critics have been over-praising The Tree of Life, but that they have been under-praising it, measuring their positive reviews, as though anything this overwhelmingly beautiful can’t be as meaningful as they initially thought, as though its pretensions might negate its meaning, as though a nagging fear that over-praise now will mean a black eye as the years progress and the movie’s art-house hype wanes.
Consider me unafraid of the black eye. The Tree of Life is as good of a movie as I’ve seen, not just this year, but in many years. Some (maybe most) viewers will not connect with and be turned off by its meandering, non-traditional structure, but those familiar with Malick’s past work, especially The Thin Red Line and The New World, will recognize the special connection between time and memory, space and perception that have become hallmarks of his very personal films. We can’t talk about this movie or its characters the way we would most others. We aren’t watching a construction of a narrative through a contrived plot, but the whole of a life, as shaped in childhood. And, like most memory, Malick uses a minimum of dialogue, preferring to present them visually, often throwing us into unfamiliar or incoherent moments without explanation challenging us to piece together the narrative of one young boy’s life through the flickering of memory Malick offers us.
Our subject is a family in Waco, Texas, sometime in the 1950s. Three brothers grow up under the domineering rule of their father, only known as Mr. O’Brien (or Sir to the boys). Mr. O’Brien is a failed musician, though he preaches the idea that every man is in control of his own destiny, an oddly American point of view that too many people take to rabid extremes. He pummels and bullies his sons, not because he doesn’t love them, but because, as he says, he wants to make them strong, to prepare them for the world. All the boys chaff under their father’s strictness, but the oldest, Jack, bristles the most, maybe because, as the oldest, he begins to understand the contradictions of his father’s rules first. He complains that his father tells them not to put their elbows on the table, even though he does. And when Mr. O’Brien tells Jack not to interrupt, Jacks responds meekly, “But you do.” How one moment he can demand his sons call him Sir, but can’t be bothered to say please when he asks one of them to get something for him (which is only a few feet away). Jack wonders how his father can demand respect, but not give it and it is this realization, this contradiction and loss of respect for his father that begins a tumultuous and lifelong descent into rebellion.
But life in the O’Brien household isn’t all rules and repression. Their father does love them and he is free with his affection. Sometimes he can seamlessly transition from an act of aggression to one of affection within the same movement, like when he teaches them how to fight and becomes more and more belligerent when they don’t perform as well as he wants them to. He looks as though he is about ready to snap and show them what a real beating is like, but then he sweeps them up into his arms and hugs them. These mixed messages could only have further confused the boys.
Their mother also provides respite from their father’s oppressiveness. She balances her husband’s moodiness and rigidity with a freer, more accepting presence for the boys. She will run and play games, laugh and joke, and does not insist on phony shows of respect. She let’s them be boys without worrying about browbeating them into strong men for the world that awaits them. (Of course her husband dismisses her as frivolous and naïve; she doesn’t have to think about the ways of the world but he does and he knows what it takes for their boys to be successful in the world. That he isn’t successful doesn’t seem to shake his commitment to his philosophy of individual will.) The contradictory influences of both their parents cause conflict and turmoil for all the boys, more so for Jack.
If this is beginning to sound symbolic – bingo! It is. Malick isn’t just telling another story about a dysfunctional family. He is saying something deeper about the nature of man, about the quest for order and meaning in a chaotic and random universe. In one stunning sequence he takes us back to the Big Bang to the bubbling molten surface of a young plant that would become Earth to the oozing primordial muck from which life would emerge. Then Malick takes us on a journey through the birth of cellular life to more complex sea creatures like jellyfish to bigger and bigger fish until we reach the stunning image of a dinosaur that had just pulled itself out of the water (and looks just as surprised as we are). From there Malick continues his brief history of life, though he judiciously avoids the evolution of man lest he invite charges of plagiarism from Stanley Kubrick fans. Visually and aurally this sequence is stunning, but what a leap of faith to include it. Viewers will either dismiss it as the ultimate cinematic hubris (as I did initially), or embrace it as an elegant and profoundly thoughtful digression that is the ultimate let’s-put-things-into-perspective.
One man’s pretension is another’s profundity – and vice versa. While some may deride Malick’s overreach (and, if I’m honest, I have to admit it is overreach, but overreach I appreciated), it changed the way I think about the story he told, though maybe not in the way Malick intended. I know some are discussing the religious implications, (Malick does begin with a quote from the Book of Job), but the movie is more about the search for order in an inherently chaotic universe. Nature managed to wrestle some semblance of order from the mayhem of the Big Bang to the complex nervous and circulatory systems of higher organisms. And most life forms try to organize some type of social order, none more so than humans. (OK, maybe not more than bees and ants.) Looking for meaning (religion, a belief in God) among all the disorder and randomness is another futile attempt to impose order on the universe. The only true order in the universe seems to exist in our bodies, but certainly not our minds; they are just as anarchic as anything, maybe more so. This reveals itself in our relationships and Malick uses this family to show how they might play out. Jack’s childhood mirrors this natural struggle.
The performances are uniformly good. Brad Pitt is imposing as Mr. O’Brien, though jutting out his lower lip often feels like a calculated manner. Jessica Chastain is warm and loving, a perfect counterpoint to Pitt’s aggressiveness. Sean Penn appears several times as adult Jack in the modern world, though he isn’t really asked to more than stare off into space. The real revelation though is newcomer Hunter McCracken as young Jack. There is a youthful grittiness to him that feels authentic; the type often only an unprofessional actor can deliver (think of a young Brad Renfro). The struggle he goes through between the competing influences of his parents is palpable and, at times, heart-wrenching.
But Malick doesn’t showcase the actors. That they are so good almost feels incidental to the intricate visual story he is telling. Mexican cinematographer Emmanuel Lubzeki captures some sumptuous images, images that become the central character to the film. Like our memories, his images are hazy and unbalanced, but idealized. The sunlight beaming through the branches of a tree is stunningly golden, the whites in the hospital delivery room are almost blinding, we can even smell the smoky deliciousness of a roadside barbeque through Lubzeki’s photography.
Malick has created a masterpiece about life and love, order and chaos, Nature and our relationship to it. It will challenge some, bore others, perplex many. But greatness is usually challenging. Great movies should never inspire universal proclamations of its masterpiece status; they should provoke debate and lines should be drawn in the sand. And they should make us think about what we just saw. I saw The Tree of Life at the Arclight Hollywood where a more jaded movie crowd is hard to find. When the movie ended there were no boos, no cheers, no jeers, no clapping. No one said a word as we filed out of the theater, no one said they loved it, no one said they hated it, no one said it was OK, no one even asked their companions what they thought. We simply filed out in complete silence, processing the experience we just went through. It was only as I walked home that my pensiveness began to break and I got that giddy feeling I get when I’ve seen something magical. (Rating *****)