“It’s not what a movie is about, it’s how it is about it.”— Roger Ebert
I can’t think of a single contemporary film* I’ve seen that’s quite like The Tree of Life, Terrence Malick’s sprawling, time-spanning, grand opus of spirituality, creation, and human existence. Mercurially free form, the film rejects many traditional notions of narrative storytelling, fashioning a vast non-linear narrative that employs the formation of the world (and its ultimate destruction) as a framing device for examining the happiness and pain of an American family across a lifetime. The Tree of Life defies convention on many levels while maintaining clear exploratory interests– such as pondering whether the universe is amorally directionless or driven by a greater plan of celestial origin, and shining a light on where human experiences fit in the life span of the stars. Put bluntly, The Tree of Life isn’t poor in thematic material.
But as I watched the film flit along, Ebert’s words kept bouncing around in my mind. The Tree of Life is very much about many things, there’s no doubt about that, but it’s Malick’s approach to conveying those ideas that will create a divisiveness over the film’s worth. If a film conveys its message through indecipherable or frustratingly obtuse means, then what if anything is it actually saying? How does a picture establish and maintain its intentions when delivered through a coarse sense of coherency? “It’s not what a movie is about, it’s how it is about it.” Thirteen simple words that so profoundly affected how I processed The Tree of Life.
There are two things about which I’m unshakably certain regarding the film. One, it’s beautiful. It may be the most beautiful film of 2011. Undeniably it belongs at the top of any list to that effect. Shot after shot after frame after frame contains images that range from merely striking to absolutely jaw-dropping. Even the most straightforward set-ups result in lovely, memorable compositions. Malick’s eye is incredible here, creating a truly distinct visual identity among the other offerings of the release year and also among the veteran filmmaker’s own very polished oeuvre. The very thought of denying him this praise is unthinkable, and though pretty images strung together do not necessarily make for a great film, The Tree of Life‘s distinguished cinematography is so strong as to flat-out deserve mention in any analysis of its merits as a total picture.
Two– and I can say this with an even greater surety than the previous statement– The Tree of Life is the most demanding film of 2011. Nothing about The Tree of Life is intended to convenience its audiences; taken purely as a cinematic experience, it’s a picture that requires viewers do all of their own legwork, putting them through the paces as it unravels over one hundred and thirty minutes of running time. While not a punishing movie by any means, Malick clearly thinks highly of the intelligence of movie-goers to structure his film with such swift complexity. (That or he doesn’t really care at all whether most “get it” or don’t.)
As far as everything else is concerned, I remain undecided. The basic forward momentum of The Tree of Life is easy enough to grasp; in between lengthy segments detailing both the birth and death of our universe, Malick has sandwiched a story of greatly reduced scope and import. It’s a human story in which the cast consists of the O’Brien clan, a family living in Waco, Texas and comprised of Mrs. O’Brien (Jessica Chastain), Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt), and their three sons. Only Jack, the eldest, has a name; we eventually meet him in present day, where he’s grown up to be Sean Penn. Largely the O’Brien’s story is told through Jack’s eyes; he’s born, he’s raised, he’s joined by his two brothers, and he’s torn between the paths of life his parents represent– that of nature, embodied by the strict authoritarian father who alternates between spontaneous displays of affection and of cruelty, and that of grace, personified by the luminous and infinitely patient mother who bears her children nothing but unconditional love. Simple enough to start with.
But the greatest questions of the film lie in discerning how these elements– suburban period family/coming-of-age drama and artful interpretation of Earth’s creation– all synthesize with one another and how the film derives meaning from their interconnection. And because The Tree of Life hinges on such a daunting query, reviewing it becomes a daunting premise. It’s a film about mothers and fathers, sorrow and happiness, the complexities of childhood, the thrill of discovering the world for yourself, and maybe even how insignificant all of those things are among galactic machinations. But it’s also about upending or subverting the movie-watching ritual to a degree, which in turn makes the task of reviewing it even more challenging.
Largely this is because The Tree of Life isn’t the sort of film that can be readily translated into palatable language for both those who have seen it and those who have not. The Tree of Life isn’t something you watch as much as it’s something you feel for yourself. How can that be relayed with total success to a widespread (or narrow!) readership? Reading about The Tree of Life does you little good if you haven’t sat yourself down in front of a movie screen or television and observed it yourself, and delineating Malick’s vision does it no justice. Maybe that makes the film special in its own fashion, transforms it into a totally singular cinematic venture, something you cannot express your opinions about adequately to the uninformed. If that was Malick’s aim, he succeeded.
And still I’m brought back to Ebert’s words. How is The Tree of Life about all of those things? It’s loose, to the effect of feeling almost totally untethered; the only anchor the film possesses lies in the O’Briens, their trials and tribulations, their sorrow and their bliss. But it’s as grounded in the lives of the O’Briens as it is blissfully afloat in the aether. In what way do they relate? There are answers, of course, but they don’t come easily or with any certainty. I think The Tree of Life reeks of masterpiece potential, but it’s the sort of larger-than-life work of art that has to stand the test of time before adopting that prestige.
*The only thing that even toes the same waters that I can muster up is The Fountain— and that film still isn’t quite as opaque as this one.