If you want your art to hold a mirror to life, you better get a pretty damn big mirror.
In The Tree of Life, auteur director Terrence Malick attempts to frame all of existence into one two-hours-and-change film. When it works, the film’s sweeping scope speaks volumes on the nature of life and man’s endless quest for meaning. When it doesn’t work, the film drags, especially in the second half of the movie.
The Tree of Life is a movie tailor made for the arthouse audience and sure to confuse your average popcorn filmgoer. Malick tells the story of one man’s childhood, in the context of his family, in the context of the world and the universe as a whole. Again and again, characters question God, especially with the quandary that shapes the film: “What do we look like to You?”
As the film went interminably on, I found myself thinking: if this is what we look like to some omniscient being, then we must be the most boring creatures on earth. Malick shows us depictions of stars and planets and the birth of worlds. In agonizingly beautiful detail, we see basic cells splitting and merging and forming what we know of as life. It’s probably the best use of high school biology I’ve seen on film yet.
Interspersed between scenes set in 1950’s America, shots of the grandness of nature appear. The film was really at least seventeen percent Planet Earth-style Discovery special, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Alexandre Desplat‘s score transcended the spectacular visual material, and drove the film to extraordinary emotional highs and lows. Even when what the eyes were seeing was unclear, the music told a distinct story, epic story that almost overshadowed the film’s human narrative.
Regarding the humans, Sean Penn speaks about five lines. Penn instead succeeds in giving a wealth of expression non-verbally, which is where the film focuses its attention. Malick gives us shot after lasting shot of his actors looking off into the distance, or slightly off camera, or really just anywhere that’s handy for a segue to another clip of the sunlight bouncing through leaves in a forest.
Brad Pitt does a mixed job with his portrayal of Mr. O’Brien, the father of our POV character, Jack O’Brien (Penn). Pitt very believably emotes when working with the child actors. His eyes convey the mixture of love and anxiety seen in many parents’ eyes. Physically, Pitt is completely present in his role as a father. However, in scenes where O’Brien is placed outside of the family center, Pitt takes on an inconsistent set of expressions and physical attributes, the worst of which is the Now You See It, Now You Don’t jut of his chin.
The film floats around in time and place until it finally settles (mostly) on the turning point of Jack’s adolescence. This is where the film starts to drag, through no fault of the talented child actors. Hunter McCracken, in particular, delivers a surprisingly mature read of Jack as a young boy.
This section of the film is almost uniformly shot in the same grey light of dusk, as Malick shows us bits and pieces from a man’s life. Some scenes seem filled with explosive impact, and others seem banal–repetitive, even. While the slow pace of the core narrative makes for less than exciting viewing, it does accurately mirror the oddly undiscriminating nature of memory, and the way unimportant events gain depth in our minds.
The interplay between Desplat‘s score and the main narrative is interesting here. Seemingly innocuous moments become fraught with tension simply by the notation of the music.
Ultimately, the film has no coherent meaning. It, like being, is existential in nature. As man lives, so man contemplates, queries, and sometimes cries out in anger. The scope of the universe both serves to diminish and expand in magnitude the importance of one man’s life, of each moment in time. We can contemplate the Big Bang, the creation of the cosmos, and we can remember small events from our childhood.
We are each the God of our memories and minds, and in the larger scheme, everything has weight. Everything has meaning. And yet, unlike this movie, existence is ephemeral. Things happen, things change, and no one knows why. In the long run, a day spent with family is as important as the formation of the universe. In the long run, maybe nothing matters.
And again we are struck with the unbearable lightness of being.