Since Terrence Malick makes films only slightly more often than God makes pronouncements, The Tree of Life - his fifth offering in 38 years - has excited much anticipation. Now the wait is over and, by all that's holy, the result actually plays like a divine pronouncement, cosmic in scope and oracular in tone, a cinematic sermon on the mount that shows its creator in exquisite form.
Exquisite but frustrating. As deities go, Malick is par for the course - he too can beguile us and irk us, he too commands our respect yet not always our love.
Indeed, love and cruelty are the double helix that weaves through every frame of the picture, starting with an opening quote from Job, whose patience is being tried by his unfathomable Maker. Ours will be tested also but, contrary to some early reports, this isn't an unfathomable or even unduly complex movie. Quite the contrary. From the title on down, the meaning is clear and the narrative is quite literal in its linearity. Malick takes us on a journey from the very birth of the universe to its current flawed state, with a stopover to a family in small-town Texas circa the 1950s. Sure, that's quite the excursion, yet you don't need a compass to chart the direction - it may not be simple but it's definitely straightforward.
The trip is prefaced by a claim delivered in voice-over (Malick's preferred mode of address) that there are only two routes through life: "the way of nature and the way of grace." Grace is abundant in the story's mother figure, the pious and loving Mrs. O'Brien (Jessica Chastain), wife of Mr. O'Brien (Brad Pitt), and a sufferer of that most awful of tragedies - the death of a child, her middle son in his late teens. How he died we never learn, but the rest of the film can be seen as a reaction to his cruelly shortened life and to the question it inevitably poses: Why? Why such a brief candle?
That's when Malick retreats from death to birth, all the way back to the origins of the cosmos, conveyed in a very long and visually stunning sequence that traces the "way of nature" - celestial stirrings, the big bang, galactic formations, starry constellations, planetary eruptions, a single-cell organism, a jelly fish, a predatory shark and, almost risibly, a small dinosaur getting stomped on by a large dinosaur, carving out its territorial imperative. With its requiem score, the sequence unfolds like a gorgeous episode of Nova, as beauty and violence perpetually co-mingle. It's sweeping enough to make that previous origins film, The New World, look stunted. It's also, at times, portentously tedious.
Then comes the Texas stopover, where the macro gives way to the micro, and to a further montage - the birth of Mrs. O'Brien's first son Jack, the baptism, baby's first steps, two other boys born, their seemingly idyllic childhood of mother's milk and the great outdoors and fresh breeze through gossamer curtains. However, the theme of a disappearing Eden permeates all of Malick's work, and this is no exception. Enter the serpent in the shape of the father, another creative lord and destructive master.
What follows is a gripping, evocative and searingly honest rendition of My Three Sons - Malick at his accessible best. Red-haired, patient, long-suffering and virtually silent, Chastain is the embodiment of absolute love, but it's Pitt who injects the picture with a much-needed infusion of danger, ambiguity and, yes, old-fashioned drama. With his hair cropped and his torso stuffed into a succession of short-sleeve dress shirts, Daddy is a man disappointed, a frustrated musician obliged to toil as a middle manager in the local refinery. To his children, this father too is simultaneously loving and cruel, issuing soft kisses and bullying commands, his bouts of tenderness alternating with explosions of temper - human nature's big bang.
Young Jack (Hunter McCracken) navigates between his parents and the "two ways" they obviously represent. He experiences a sexual awakening, flirts with an Oedipal complex and eventually, as an adult, can be found in a place that Malick has never visited in any of his earlier works: the present day. The director seems uncomfortable there and (portrayed in a cameo by Sean Penn) so does Jack. He's an architect now, still troubled by his brother's death and trapped in an urban prison of steel and glass. Escape beckons in the surreal guise of the film's climax, when what began as a cosmic bang ends with the human whimper of wishful thinking - a kind of Rapture scene where even the portal to heaven looks grey and sombre.
But maybe that's the point. Our conclusion, individually or as a species, is bound to be an anti-climax. With or without us, the journey continues and, ultimately, nothing will outlast that ever-hovering question. In The Tree of Life, only the "Why?" is eternal.
The Tree of Life
- Directed and written by Terrence Malick
- Starring Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain, Hunter McCracken
- Classification: PG
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