After a long gestation, Terence Malick’s fifth film, Tree of Life, has entered our cinematic bloodstream. It is a lengthy elegy on nothing less than desire, loss, faith, love and the cosmos. What else could we expect of a man who once translated Heidegger and taught philosophy at MIT?
In Tree of Life, Malick the existential ruminator meets Malick the filmmaker’s filmmaker, and the result is a controversial, overly-long, unforgettable work that took this year’s Palme d’Or at Cannes.
Whatever it isn’t (more on that later), Tree is a deeply moving portrait of an American family, set in Texas of the 1950s. However much Malick attempts to lay on baroque opulence in the form of digressions into cosmic imagery, digressions that literally unfurl the creation of the universe, digressions in the form of achingly beautiful classical music — the soul of the film is the complex and stormy relationship between a father (Brad Pitt) and his sons (the eldest, Jack, played by an astonishing young Hunter McCracken).
Pitt is a revelation as the ambitious father whose dashed dreams of being a concert pianist have devolved into a meaningless white collar factory job. He loves his children but demands their obediance. He loves his wife (Jessica Chastain) but is jealous of the ease with which she crowns the lives of her young sons. Especially painful are the father’s violent attempts at reaching his eldest son, who increasingly rebels against his dad’s raging outbursts. In other words, this is a patriarch many viewers will remember vividly from their own coming of age in the time before men were sensitized by political correctness.
In his rage, and in his tenderness, Pitt finally moves far beyond his own enviable stereotype. He is the secret heart of the film. The scenes of the three boys just being boys are uncanny. They are perfect. Malick not only remembers how it felt to find discovery and silliness in every hour of every day, but he captures performances from young actors that Spielberg would have killed for.
Chastain, Malick’s Liv Ullman surrogate, is poetically detached from the grit of the world, at least until she receives news — in the film’s present-day setting — that one of her sons has been killed. Flashing into the present, we encounter Jack (Sean Penn), now grown up into the success that eluded his father, stunned by the news of his brother’s death, stunned into questioning his own life, loss of faith, and yes, the meaning of it all. Penn’s eloquent, care-worn face bears its freight of pain with dignity. But his grief is almost more than Malick’s camera can bear.
Malick may have bitten off more than even James Cameron could have chewed—and the sumptuous images of the galaxies and planets and roiling oceans may strike many viewers as too much neo-Stanley Kubrick. They did me. But what Malick achieves that is rare and treasurable is to think large. To attempt greatness. Such hugeness of vision, successful or not, is to be cherished.
Especially in an era when all playing fields are not only leveled into mediocrity, but lowered into cliché.
You could do much worse with two and a half hours than to let yourself surrender to a film that imagines the unseen, and conjures the unknowns of human existence. Without one iota of irony.