The Tree of Life is easily the most ambitious film anyone has made so far this year—and possibly this millennium. That's an enormous statement, but it's true. But it doesn't mean the movie will necessarily entertain, as director Terrence Malick has, once again, come down on the side of art.
Malick has made only five movies in the last 40 years, and this one, like the others, is slow and beautiful, barely telling its own story while closely examining where it all takes place. But whether or not it entertains, bores or simply provokes thought and discussion, The Tree of Life—opening Friday, June 10, at Hillcrest Cinemas—is a tremendous piece of filmmaking. It explores the tragedy of the human condition while examining the origins of the universe up to the present and managing to take science, God, love and death into account. Yeah, that's some heavy shit.
Humanity is represented here by a 1950s-era Texas family, from the particular point of view of Jack (Hunter McCracken), the oldest of three boys, who's approaching his teenage years. He adores his mother (Jessica Chastain) and fears his father (Brad Pitt), a stern, angry man who feels that life has passed him by, despite his dedication to family, God and country. Jack is still an innocent, but just barely. This family is not unique—though perfect on the surface, they have troubles, and one of the boys will die young (don't worry—this isn't a spoiler). But though there is very little death in the film, the specter haunts the proceedings.
Jack's upbringing is one branch of The Tree. Sean Penn plays him in the present. He's a confused adult who works in a world of glass and steel, building and creating, which is the natural state of Malick's universe. Both ends of the story are put into context with long, wordless stretches that show us the beginning of time, the beginning of planets, of life, even dinosaurs and kindness, the culmination of which is the world as we know it.
Malick's film is devastatingly complex, because the family's faith is challenged not just by hard times, but also by the evolution of the universe we watch play out in staggering beauty. And yet, there's room in the film for belief; it ends on a note that can only be described as spiritual, a sense of interconnectedness that's probably the film's most opaque moment.
The film puts everything into a larger context and forces us to examine ourselves and our place in the universe, both as
individuals and as something larger. We exist in a world that makes it
uncommonly easy to feel insignificant, to feel that our troubles don't
amount to a hill of beans. And what Malick is saying, I believe, is
that, yes, the universe is an awe-inspiring thing, but the issues each
of us faces are equally as important. We all come from somewhere, and
whether you're a devotee of religion or science, you're compelled to
find your place.
This is a film that strives to put human pain, suffering and experience into singular context with everything that exists in the universe without minimizing the wonder and beauty of life. That's a tall order, and the viewer has to work. I wish I had felt a bit more connected to the characters, and I wish that, like the way he treats the world in which they exist, Malick had been less observational and more intimate with them and occasionally given them a sense of humor.
But the more distance I have from watching The Tree of Life, the more I appreciate it as a work of art. I don't expect everyone else to share that sentiment, because the film is a challenging and harrowing and very personal experience. Just like life.