In distinguishing between pretentious, inaccessible, pseudo-artistic prattle and actual works of genius, audiences ultimately wind up relying on Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart’s infamous method of determining what is and isn’t pornography: “I know it when I see it.” At the precise moment when writer/director Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life becomes transcendent for some, it becomes laughable nonsense for others.
And that’s okay. Brilliance is, by necessity, a high-wire act; it is a tightrope dance across mainstream sensibilities while reaching out for the sublime. It’s not only acceptable that some feel The Tree of Life is a crash-and-burn of navel-gazing hubris, it’s an inherently defensible position. I just disagree.
For me, Malick’s latest is a whispered talk with God, a half-mumbled prayer photographed with a divine eye. Most staggering is that the auteur doesn’t present the typical one-sided conversation; God talks back.
For all the overinflated buzz about the incomprehensible plot, the events of the film are actually quite easy to follow. Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt) is an authoritative-but-loving father raising three boys in Texas in the 1950s. His wife (Jessica Chastain), an ethereal and graceful wisp of a woman, is every bit his antithesis. While he buries an obvious love and devotion for his family beneath self-doubt and mild rage, she doles out affection and approval too freely to concern herself with discipline. In some sense, together they make the perfect parent.
This Norman Rockwell by way of Stanley Kubrick portrait of American upbringing collides with the present day via the recollections of the eldest son, who is now a middle-aged man. These narratives are woven together by three hushed prayers—one by the mother, one by Jack as a child (Hunter McCracken) and one by the middle-aged Jack (Sean Penn). They are interrupted by a retort from the almighty.
To be fair, God doesn’t do a voiceover. He does, however, respond via gobsmacking visuals. As each prayer begs for a response, we see cosmic displays of light and the birth of all life on earth, up to and including dinosaurs. In other words, in order to comprehend the divine response to questions like “why do bad things happen to good people,” you’d have to be able to understand the very fabric of all that was and will be.
While very little happens in the way of plot and story, Malick unloads a double-barrel blast of ambiguous but imaginative cinematic poetry. As the film winds to its conclusion with what may be the most soft-handed and inspiring depiction of the afterlife ever crafted, those who have allowed themselves to embark on this journey now carry exhausted souls.
What separates Malick from the Lars von Triers of the world is a directorial humility. Here, his characters literally whisper against imagery designed to make all humans feel small. Whereas even great artists like Fellini and Kurosawa often felt declarative, Malick has always been more inquisitive than presumptuous. This approach is what birthed both his triumphs (The Thin Red Line) and misfires (The New World).
He is aided here by Pitt and Chastain, who are forced to do more with silent gazes than spoken words. Pitt somehow projects ruthless authoritarian tendencies alongside honest devotion while Chastain is practically a holy ghost, haunting with divine love. Penn, who barely appears, is perfectly cast in that his minimal presence is supplemented by what the audience knows of his career; in essence, his body of work allows us to fill in Jack’s life from childhood to middle age.
With a precision and method sure to be decried as glacier-paced by those unconsumed, The Tree of Life moves from weighty and tragic to lithe and lyrical. As the hypnotic, hymn-esque score pulsates, those lucky enough to be swept away will no doubt feel something transformational.
While I don’t know that I’ll ever watch The Tree of Life again, I do know that I’ll carry it with me. Spiritual without being preachy, transcendent without feeling forced, this is the nature of breathtaking art. As much as I respect those unaffected and disinterested, I pity them as well: Much like miracles, movies like this don’t happen very often.
Grade = A+