Let’s start with what Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life is, a great picture. I’m not interested in what it’s not. This movie is a spiritual dream, a beautiful collection of images designed to enlighten, confuse and absorb. It is not a narrative tale, though it does focus on a Texas family in the 1950s but only as that relates to the creation of the universe and the nature of man. And I mean man. As sensitive and delicate as The Tree of Life is, there’s something predominantly male about it, and would certainly not pass the Bechdel test.
The story, such as it is, revolves around a boy, Jack (Hunter McCracken) and his relationship with his brothers, his father, and his self. Of course he has a mother (brilliantly portrayed by Jessica Chastain) but his relationship with her is almost not a relationship. She is goddess and woman, as easily the butt of a prank with a lizard as revered as his creator. We see Jack as a man, played now by Sean Penn, and his cold apartment and office and he shares a bed with a woman but there is not love in that bed with them. Women seem to exist beyond him. His father is definitely more real. Played by Brad Pitt, he is seen as a boy sees his father; as a monstrous pillar of authority, a stern and cruel deliverer of injustice and rigidity. He is not abusive, but what boy doesn’t feel he has been abused by the man who stands between the boy and a monopoly on the affection of his mother?
There is a moment when Young Jack realizes that his father isn’t the great man he has grown up believing and that moment is devastating for both of them. If only he’d had a similar moment in regards to his mother, he might have been better off going forward. “Mother, father, always you wrestle inside of me, always you will,” we hear on the soundtrack. The Tree of Life is a poem that recreates the essence of a boy growing up with images and sounds. It works best as a collection of emotional states photographed beautifully by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki.
Although there’s plenty of dialogue, mostly spoken in trademark Malick voiceovers, I wouldn’t be surprised if the script simply said “Grief, joy, freedom, confinement, awe, frustration, wonder, love, anger, warmth, hate,” or something to that effect and many times I felt those things intensely and for reasons I can’t completely put my finger on. This is a rare movie that would work both on mute and with your eyes closed, though not at the same time. It’s such a ballet of images and sound that either could carry the movie alone. It is a movie about little moments and big ideas.
The Tree of Life is at home in giving us a short scene of the shame of being insensitive to a handicapped man that goes unnoticed by everyone including the handicapped man but it is also about how that kind of moment can stay with someone for their entire life, a constant source of self-humiliation. It is just as comfortable showing us the very creation of life on this planet. What does that have to do with a family in Texas in the 1950s? To a young boy, they are one in the same. Children can recognize that their parents were once like them or that their line goes back generations but the concept is too vast to grasp fully. “Tell us a story from before we can remember?” Jack begs his mother. Tell us the story of the beginning of time. For whom is my father lighting that votive candle? What mysteries could possibly exist in the life of this man who has no past and came into my life fully formed? Mother, father, always you wrestle inside of me. We are the products of all that’s gone before us, our parents, our upbringing, our conditions and locations, our moments. It’s as true for the first miserable creature that crawled out of the sea as for the child being born right now.
These are the shades of The Tree of Life, a movie with more questions than answers. That it becomes overindulgent is inevitable, but this is a movie that wants to say everything and I can’t fault it too much for coming so close.