“The Tree of Life” has been out on DVD for some time now, but its recent nomination for Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director make a review of it timely. I’m guessing that neither the movie nor director Terrence Malik will win: the film is simply too challenging, perhaps more obscure, than the kind that the Academy usually favors. It received decidedly mixed critical reviews and did only fairly well in its theatrical release—not a new experience for a Mallick film. Still, film buffs should give this one a look see.
And it’s a visual treat. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki does deserve serious consideration for the Oscar in recognition of his lyrical, sometimes breathtaking work. Malik has rendered a cinematic poem, as opposed to a traditional narrative. Indeed, at times the viewer may get lost in time and what passes for a plot, but Lubezki’s images keep interest alive. Add to this Alexandre Desplat’s musical score—a mix of original and classical pieces—and the film appeals in some major categories.
What has caught the most criticism, however, is Malik’s attempt to place the core story in a huge context, almost a universal one. The opening quote from Job emphasizes humans’ inability to begin to understand the cosmos, the beauty and variety of the Creation, the nature of the Creator. The story line emphasizes both the wonder of the natural world and the harshness of life within it, the glory that surrounds us and the reality of death that colors everything else.
Had Malik stuck to only the story of an ordinary family living in 1950s Waco, Texas, “Tree” would have been a thoughtful film with some archetypal shadings to open its meaning. Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt) and his wife (Jessica Chastain) have three sons. The eldest, Jack (Hunter McCracken) bears the brunt of his father’s ire and perfectionism. A disappointed musician and inventor, Father (who won’t let his sons call him “Dad”) looms over Jack, demanding obedience in things large and small. In contrast, his mother is a Mom in spades: protective, forgiving, gentle, and kind. The only unalloyed good times in the household come when Jack and his younger brother, R.L. (Laramie Eppler), enjoy the freedom of Dad’s being away on business.
The loss of one of his brothers at age 19 deeply affects the older Jack (Sean Penn, in a near cameo role), an architect living in the glass and steel canyons of a contemporary city. We see him moving like a lost soul through his day, detached from family and nature, except for some brief shots of him on a beach or in a desert landscape—both presumably metaphorical or subjective. At other points, we hear Jack, older and younger, as well as his mother and father, questioning God’s purpose, recalling the opening lines from Job but putting them in an intimate, poignant context.
Somewhat easier to follow, the narrative involving the relationship between parents and children, the mix of love and authority, of obedience and rebellion, rings absolutely true to experience. Even here, viewers need to infer a good deal of what has happened, Malik teasingly leaving much to the imagination. But individuals who have had parallel childhood experiences will enjoy filling in the blanks.
Count me among that group. I found the story of loss deeply moving, the film’s imaginative, hopeful ending reassuring. “The Tree of Life” is rated “PG-13,” but it’s unlikely that most teens or subteens have the patience or the necessary perspective to appreciate it. Malik has produced only five films in forty years as a director--my own favorite is “The Thin Red Line” (1998)—most of them critical successes and box-office disappointments. This latest effort displays his masterful understanding of the medium, but it also demonstrates the opacity of his work for the mass audience.