Terrence Malick makes unique and beautiful films with deliberate rhythms and a tantalizing (or some would say frustrating) ambiguity. With The Tree of Life he constructs a film that is both epic and intimate, almost an inverted version of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey that is built around emotional moments that occasionally expand to form an entire universe. It’s ambitious, but also casual and funny. I’ve seen it twice and enjoyed it both times as it made me think and connected to me on several levels.
Just as the world that surrounds us is open to opinion, in the discussions I’ve read about the film and had with people, there is a wonderful diversity of interpretations. Overall it’s fairly simple, but the ways that everything connects and the small details are lovely. A discussion is like remembering things that have happened to you. Small clues or gestures that you have forgotten can change the way you see things. There is very little dialogue in the film (most of it is in the trailer), but there is a startling economy to the construction of the film, almost as if it were maple syrup boiled and distilled down to the sweetness.
While there is narration, it’s sparse and it provides an occasional nudge in one interpretative direction or another. Very few characters even have names, but it doesn’t really matter as we easily can figure out who they are. The film is incredibly beautiful and is shot fluidly with mainly natural light. The moments are perfect and combined with the editing, sound design and music it’s breathtaking at times. But this is a bit like talking about an amazing meal. It’s the experience and not just the ingredients that make it special. It’s social and nourishing and personal. How can you review that?
Malick directs his actors (both experienced and new) in a way that feels like a documentary. Much of what happens is internal. Maybe they are thinking something and maybe they aren’t. But we fill in the gaps and the emotions that they may have difficulty in expressing. Brad Pitt is great as the strict father who is filled with regret as he tries to figure out the world of nature and men. Jessica Chastain is angelic as the mother who provides joy and the way of grace and wonder. Hunter McCracken plays Jack as a boy (Sean Penn is the man) and most of the film consists of memories of his childhood and the relationship with one of his brothers and his parents.
Plot-wise there is a traumatic event that happens off camera in the first few minutes. It’s never fully explained, but it echoes throughout the entire film. The economy of storytelling is amazing and it provides an emotional punch to kick things off before a slight digression to witness the creation of the universe and the emergence of life. It sounds ambitious and it is, but it somehow remains remarkably human and personal with enough spaces to allow for reflection and connections with our own lives. It may not be for everyone, but it was one of the best films I’ve seen in the past decade. I may even see it again in the theatre.