A Grand Movie for Grand Themes
It may be said that most serious artists ultimately migrate in the same direction, toward creating works that no longer simply evaluate local aspects of their lives, but inevitably address one's self in the context of all life. And it appears that director Terrence Malick has already arrived at this point with The Tree of Life. Practically a magnum opus upon arrival, the movie deals with nothing less than a man coming to terms with the reason for his being, the direction he took in life, and his relationship to God and the universe, via flashbacks to his childhood and to thoughts about the creation of life on earth. The sections about childhood feel so personal and intimate that it would be astonishing if they didn't have direct connections to Malick's own experiences (Malick grew up in the Texas/Oklahoma region, and most of the film takes place in Waco, Texas). So the film naturally leads one to believe the main character of the film, Jack (Sean Penn as adult, Hunter McCracken as teenager) stands as a surrogate, if not literal then at least philosophical, of the writer/director himself.
Though The Tree of Life is presented in an almost stream-of-consciousness manner, it lays out simple terms from the beginning. The primary struggle shown is the one between the urge to satisfy base desires vs. the will to forgive, to show kindness and mercy. The film terms this as "nature" vs. "grace" (they are personified by Jack's strict father, played by a terrific Brad Pitt, and innocent mother, played by Jessica Chastain) and the crux of the issue comes from wondering why God allows the capacity for cruelty without direct adverse consequences to the enacter (this extends to cruel acts by God as well). Though it may sound as if the movie is concerned mostly with religion and spirituality, the conveyance of its story opens it up further than that and allows it to be explored by viewers of any belief. I myself am irreligious, but Malick's concerns here are ones I often ponder. We are held back by thin lines we could consciously snap, but we do not -- due to a respect for a greater good. However, that respect must somehow be learned. The Tree of Life is full of moments where these lines are snapped or almost snapped by Jack -- a mean prank on his brother, acts of animal abuse, an evil consideration of "accidental" death. Though the harsh negative reinforcement of his father drives him toward tendencies to rebel, the teachings of his mother are instilled enough within him to fuel his conscience and create genuine guilt.
The proper perspective of the significance of these inner struggles is even given consideration (and these are, again, thoughts I often consider). What larger perspective could one have than to place the battles of one's individual conscience against the uncaring universe itself? An early part of the movie actually digresses to the universe's creation through the Big Bang (thus creating another way of opening up a locally spiritual concern to spaces beyond religion), through the formation of the Milky Way, our solar system, and finally to Earth. This part of the movie actually reminded me of the "Rite of Spring" section of Fantasia, though The Tree of Life may argue that Fantasia only showed us "nature"; here, there is actually a strange scene of "grace" among, of all things, dinosaurs. In a way, it says that nothing we do really matters in a grand scheme, but matters infinitely in a local scheme, and that is not insignificant.
Most beautifully, The Tree of Life communicates all of its themes and concerns through nothing resembling a traditional movie. It's a collection of shots, thoughts, moments, and memories, sweetly composed visuals with a soul-stirring soundtrack (original score portions composed by Alexandre Desplat), and all masterfully edited together in a flow that comes complete with miniature crashes of imagery balanced by distinct, settled sections. Its assembly alone makes a case for its achieving cinematic heights. It's a work of great confidence, asking its audience to observe, reflect, and feel over making literal sense of events.
For Malick, the film feels like a summation work -- no longer is it a movie about fugitives, farmhands, soldiers, or explorers, it's a work directly about one's thoughts on life, conscience, and meaning themselves. Few films can grasp such heady concerns and keep such a hold on them that they resonate philosophically, emotionally. A few years ago, Charlie Kaufman's Synecdoche, New York made me think along similar lines. A Serious Man by the Coen Brothers gave me a more humorous twist on these themes. And now there is The Tree of Life, perhaps the most optimistic of the three. One could even call it "the kindest" of such movies -- the one with the most grace.
(Released by Fox Searchlight Pictures and rated "PG-13" for some thematic material.)
Review also posted at www.windowtothemovies.com.