Jack (Sean Penn) remembers his father in the kaleidoscopic family drama The Tree Of Life (2011)
The Tree Of Life charts life from the beginning of time - the collision of burning stars and genesis of colossal planets, the birth of nature and origins of evolution - right up to the present day, where Jack (Sean Penn) reflects on his boyhood in the 1950's, haunted by the memory of his authoritarian father (Brad Pitt). His mother (Jessica Chastain) is portrayed as an earthbound angel, and in one dreamlike vision her divinity allows her to float on air. This is family drama on a cosmic scale. Life leads to life leads to life leads to Jack. Birth and rebirth. What happens when we die? These and so many more are the questions at the center of Malick's latest. This is going to be tough...
Much has been made of the 20-minute "Birth Of The Universe" sequence - a mixture of 2001 (Kubrick, 1968), Fantasia (1940; 'The Rite Of Spring' sequence, directed by Bill Roberts and Paul Satterfield) and a Windows 97 screensaver. There are dinosaurs (more BBC than Jurassic Park, Spielberg, 1993), but the film would work better without them. I'd previously described the sequence as superfluous, but this was an erroneous statement. Personally I think Malick overreaches and becomes reductionist, but what the sequence does achieve is a definite sense of the intimate against the prodigious reaches of the universe. Imagine a canvas 1,000,000 meters in height and length. It is black, and upon its surface are painted the stars, planets and galaxies. Now imagine the image of a family sat at a dining table, sketched onto a post-it note, which is then pinned to the canvas. The eye would not instantly be drawn to the post-it note - in the grand scheme of things it signifies nothing. A fleeting moment in undefined space. Malick's film at first explores the canvas, and then, masterfully, draws us closer and closer into the sketch of the family. Suddenly they mean something. Their existence is in and of itself important, because it occurs in such an immense vacuum. It's precious. Suddenly we don't take it for granted.
Sean Penn was recently critical of the film in an interview with Le Figaro, in which he said: "I didn't at all find on the screen the emotion of the script, which is the most magnificent one that I've ever read. A clearer and more conventional narrative would have helped the film without, in my opinion, lessening its beauty and its impact." I've always struggled with Malick's narrative approach, particularly in Days Of Heaven (1978), which favors elegiac voiceover and elliptical imagery over something more traditional. I understand how this works for some, but I find the style dramatically unsatisfying. The Tree Of Life is also largely comprised of voiceover, spoken over seemingly disconnected images of the boys living their day-to-day lives (I say disconnected because there is no establishment of time passing, or whether these images are even relayed to the viewer in chronological order). The whispering tones of the voiceover ask questions about the universe. This could be infuriating on its own, but Malick does also allow for substantial development between his characters. I haven't read the script, so can't speak for it, but I doubt it could have informed as much emotion as the camerawork, which floats through the world like an omnipresent observer. Never did I get the sense that the camera was connected to a tripod or dolly, and operated by a crew. It is said that God can hear all the voices of his children, and see them all at once also. It's important to note that the voiceover is not singularly attributed to one character, and each of them has their inner thoughts heard at some point. I question the perspective of the film, and ask if perhaps it belongs to God.
The Tree Of Life opens with a passage from the Book Of Job: "Where were you when I laid the Earth's foundation... while the morning stars sang together and the sons of God shouted for joy?" Like everything else in the film this is open to interpretation, but for me it acts as a reminder to man of his smallness - a reminder that God is infinite, and his world beyond comprehension. The quote, which is about creation, also looks to the relationship between Jack and his father. It is likely telling that the birth of the boys is narratively juxtaposed with the birth of prehistoric life, which we think of as malevolent, but here is forgiving. I'd invite any comments at the bottom of this review as to what you think it means - I guarantee that there won't be any response which is entirely the same. I also get the feeling that whenever I watch the film next I will come away with a different meaning. The same will be true of a viewing in ten years time, and after that twenty.
But for my first viewing I'd be lying if I said that the film had delivered everything I'd wanted it to. Sometimes Malick gets lost in thought, and his transgressions into nature often come off as no more than an environmental slideshow. When he's reinforcing the images with emotion they compel, but his unabashedly positive worldview sometimes becomes too cute and self-absorbed. Ultimately I disagree with it. This isn't a fault with the film, and Malick's honesty is frankly inspiring, but it's only right that I admit to it having affected my viewing. I'm more inclined to agree with the worldview of a filmmaker like Werner Herzog, who thinks of civilization as "a thin layer of ice upon a deep ocean of chaos and darkness." Malick's cosy wonderment is best represented by the ending, which to me is a vision of the afterlife.
There may be some, like me, who find the film a little simplistic in its deductions. But why should that be intrinsically a bad thing? I remember an old joke: Why did the chicken cross the road? Upon hearing this setup most people expect a witty punchline, as they would expect a profound philosophical revelation from The Tree Of Life. To get to the other side, the joke concludes. Sometimes life is just that simple. And sometimes that's okay.