“The Tree of Life” (2011). Cast: Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, Jessica Chastain, Hunter McCracken, Laramie Eppler, Tye Sheridan, Fiona Shaw. Director: Terrence Malick. Screenplay: Terrence Malick. www.foxsearchlight.com/thetreeoflife/
What’s our place in the Universe? Is there a God? And, if so, what is He/She/It like? Does that supposed Supreme Being love us, or is It a capricious, unknowable entity that treats us like playthings for Its own amusement? These are heady questions that have wracked the brains, tried the patience and perplexed the minds of scholars and ordinary folks alike for eons—and nearly always without satisfactory resolution. Which is why it’s so amazing that a movie would attempt to take on the ambitious challenge of addressing those very issues, as is the case with one of this year’s most highly anticipated releases, director Terrence Malick’s enigmatic “The Tree of Life.”
Malick’s latest opus is a difficult film to categorize. In many respects, it’s more a meditation than a narrative, exploring life’s cosmic questions in cinematically poetic fashion. In fact, in that regard, many have astutely likened this picture to Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968), continuing many of its predecessor’s themes but with a focus that’s more spiritual than cerebral. And, regardless of how one might view such an artistic venture in concept—or the specific results that have sprung forth from it, as depicted in this film—seeking to fulfill the lofty goals to which “The Tree of Life” aspires definitely represents an audacious undertaking. However, the finished product, in my view, is a mix of both brilliance and tedium, succeeding tremendously in some ways and disappointing in others.
As in Kubrick’s masterpiece, the story here is incidental when compared to the themes that the picture seeks to explore. In a nutshell, disillusioned middle-aged architect Jack O’Brien (Sean Penn) looks back on his childhood in 1950s Texas, attempting to come to terms with his conflicted relationships with his parents (Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain) and the unexpected loss of a brother at a young age. In doing so, Jack relives his youth through the memories of his younger self (Hunter McCracken), specifically his struggle to find his way in a world seemingly full of mixed messages, many of which come from parents who often appear to contradict themselves and each other. But there’s much more going on here than just a coming of age story in which both the elder and younger Jack try to understand the tangible trappings of their respective worlds; they also seek to grasp the meaning behind it all—if there indeed is any meaning to be had.
Through the characters’ experiences, many profound notions are raised and explored. One of the more prominent themes, which substantially frames the prevailing tenor of the film, is expressed in a voiceover by Jack’s mother near the outset. In her narration, she speaks of the distinction between the state of grace and the state of nature; those who have faith in the former and accept whatever comes their way, for better or worse, will be rewarded with a blessed existence, while those who abide by the way of nature and attempt to force their existence into being will be met with disappointment, no matter how seemingly genuine their intentions. As Jack grows up, he grapples with understanding these ideas, a challenge made especially difficult by the actions and teachings of parents who embody each viewpoint, seemingly contradicting one another yet nearly always attaining results commensurate with the respective outlooks. The challenge in this for both the younger and the elder Jack is to decide which viewpoint he wishes to embrace for himself.
The depiction of Jack’s parents as symbolic representations of these two viewpoints illuminates another of the film’s significant themes (and one near and dear to the hearts of conscious creation practitioners)—that of the physical and nonphysical worlds being reflections of one another. Jack’s mother, for example, is a flesh-and-blood materialization of living in a state of grace, while Jack’s father is clearly an initiate into the state of nature school. In a larger context, these two pairs of parallel manifestations eloquently illustrate the metaphysical concept of “As above, so below,” the core operating principle in a variety of philosophical doctrines, such as alchemy and, of course, conscious creation.
In a similar vein, Jack’s parents also embody the universal concepts of the divine masculine and divine feminine, particularly how each has materialized in conventional spiritual and religious contexts. Jack’s father, for example, alternates between being both a loving soul and a hardened authoritarian figure, much the way God the father has been portrayed in many of the world’s established faith systems, such as traditional Christianity. His mother, by contrast, is often relegated to a secondary role, called upon to provide compassion when needed but seldom being allowed to offer substantively meaningful input on “how the children are reared,” a circumstance mirroring the woefully limited role that women have typically been allowed to play in religious circles, both materially and theologically. The recent—and necessary—resurgence of the divine feminine in our outer and inner spiritual lives is depicted here, too, though, illustrating how things have, thankfully, begun to change in today’s world.
Underlying all of these notions is yet another theme that characterizes much of the film’s inherent nature—that we are just the latest materialization in an ongoing series of manifestations expressing an array of universal principles, such as the foregoing, in physical form. This is sublimely depicted through a lush montage of evolutionary images illustrating the continuity intrinsic to the physical expression of these concepts. Divinely inspired acts of compassion, for instance, are seen as timeless gestures that have been passed down through the earth’s ages; be they expressed by dinosaurs or by humans, these principles have, and always have had, a place in a world where a divine hand is at work in the act of creation. This evolutionary aspect also further evidences the conscious creation concept that “we”—no matter what physical form we might take—are always in a constant state of becoming, materially evincing the nonphysical notions that underlie physical reality in all its kaleidoscopic forms.
Clearly, there’s a lot at work going on here, but the film has drawn decidedly mixed reactions, and understandably so. Its poetic, image-based, nonlinear approach, for example, may be confounding to those accustomed to more conventional styles of filmmaking and storytelling. Its inclusion of beautiful imagery for its own sake, incorporated more for nuance than narrative significance, might test some viewers’ patience. And its mixture of ethereal and secular imagery could be seen as downright obtuse, even to the most sophisticated audiences.
Critics’ reactions thus far have followed suit; many have praised the film as revelatory, while others have panned it as pretentious nonsense, and still others have said it incorporates some of both elements. As for me, I would align myself with the third group. When this film is on, it leaves one awestruck; when it’s not, it leaves one wanting to hit the concession stand for a popcorn refill.
The picture’s biggest problem, from my perspective, is a need for some very judicious editing. This “tree” has too many branches, some of which need to be pruned to let the healthy growth flourish. Instead, we’re given too many unnecessary, and often-redundant, images that would have been far better off left on the cutting room floor. A truly masterful director knows when to stop, but that’s not the case here. As St. Paul Pioneer Press film critic Chris Hewitt aptly put it, “what we’re left with is a scrapbook of stunning images”—and one that has a few too many pages in it. Still, the picture does have its champions, as evidenced by its success at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Palme d’Or, the festival’s top honor.
Flaws aside, the film has a number of strengths. The cinematography—the real star of this show—truly is beautiful, and the picture’s stunning special effects and engrossing soundtrack provide excellent enhancement for the exquisite onscreen imagery. The performances by Pitt, Chastain and, particularly, McCracken are all quite capable, too, though Penn’s considerable talent goes largely untapped thanks to a script that doesn’t call upon him to do much other than walk around and emote, a role that virtually anyone could have played. In the end, though, it’s unfortunate that the film’s other attributes didn’t live up to the quality of its strengths; if they had, this easily could have been a milestone picture in the annals of filmmaking.
As ascendant beings who ultimately seek the source from which we came, not unlike the trees that so patiently yet determinedly reach for the life-sustaining sunlight of the sky, we’re innately committed to the search for meaningful guidance that will assist us in this journey. “The Tree of Life” offers us much in that regard, but its overlong, sometimes needlessly cryptic treatment of its subject matter clouds issues as much as it clarifies them, especially when it tests the patience of viewers, who may regrettably but understandably begin tuning out to the picture just as it’s on the verge of offering its most beneficial counsel. It’s at times like that when a metaphysical chainsaw would come in handy. And, based on the finished product, it’s apparent the filmmakers could have used one as well.
Copyright © 2011, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.