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The Tree of Life

Repeat Viewings Required

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars.

Terence Malick’s films tend to divide critics and cineastes along generally recognizable lines, between those who see Malick’s films as masterpieces, and those who see Malick’s films as pretentious, faux-European art cinema.

The Tree of Life, Malick’s (The New World, The Thin Red Line, Badlands) first film in six years won’t be any less divisive, despite winning the Palme d'Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, making The Tree of Life an early front-runner for next year’s Academy Awards.

The Tree of Life can be variously described as a coming-of-age drama, a grief drama, a middle-aged-existential drama, and a cosmic drama. Alone or together, however, they fail to properly explain the film’s profundity and/or resonance (e.g., aesthetic, narrative, metaphysical, emotional, etc.).

To say that a film centers on a character is to say that a film follows traditional narrative structure (e.g., three or four acts depending on the screenwriting guru you follow, a goal-driven protagonist, obstacles, antagonist, resolution, catharsis). The Tree of Life certainly covers those elements, but not in a conventional sense.

Where mainstream Hollywood filmmaking focuses exclusively on a goal-driven protagonist and minimal (if any) ambiguity, The Tree of Life sidesteps narrative clarity for interpretative ambiguity (e.g., themes, subtext, etc.), typical of European art cinema, silent film, and Stanley Kubrick’s films (specifically 2001: A Space Odyssey).

The Tree of Life repeatedly returns to the central character, Jack O’Brien (Sean Penn), a disconnected, spiritually stagnant, Houston architect. His well-ordered glass-and-metal house, sterile, antiseptic, devoid of color or personality mirrors the glass-and-steel office building where he works as an architect, but the focus soon expands to Jack’s memories of his family, specifically his father (Brad Pitt) and mother (Jessica Chastain), as he imagines them, as he remembers them during in childhood in 1950s’ Smithville, Texas (Malick grew up in Texas). Jack’s memories are apparently triggered by a phone call from his father, reminding him of an unhappy anniversary.

That trigger shifts the focus from the adult Jack to his parents in the 1960s as they receive the news no parent ever wants to receive: the death of their second son at the age of 19. He may have died in the Vietnam War or in an accident (his death comes as shock and surprise), but Malick refuses to answer the “where” or even the “how” of his death definitively. In an emotionally devastating scene, the first of many in The Tree of Life, a minister offers up a comforting platitude, “He's in God's hands,” she responds with ash-bitter words, “He was always in God's hands.”

In a sense, it’s Job all over again, an indifferent god allowing the undeserving to die, regardless of whether he believed in a particular religion or lived a moral life (an early challenge to Jack when he witnesses the accidental death of a young boy by drowning).

Jack doesn't share his younger brother's talents for music or painting. In fact, he shows little (actually no) artistic sensibility of any kind, drawing him further away, at least on one level, from his father, a frustrated musician. Those differences lead to growing resentment toward his brother, who he suspects, rightly, is better loved by his parents. In a telling scene, Jack asks his mother whom she loves most among her sons. She gives the standard answer, that she loves all of her sons equally, but it’s clear she loves the second son most of all, as does Jack’s father, in part for his musical talent, in part because, he resembles his mother.

Returning to the adult Jack, Malick takes him to a rapturous vision of reconciliation, revisiting his youth, his parents and brothers, unchanged. It may not be subjectively real (unless some form of time travel’s involved), but it becomes the path Jack takes to find what he lost in himself decades earlier.

To describe The Tree of Life as profound makes it sound pretentious. Malick isn’t above allowing his inner college instructor (he taught philosophy before he became a filmmaker) to ask the big questions (life, the universe, the meaning thereof) and he’s not afraid to answer them even at the risk of being called pretentious, hubristic, or even simplistic. But it was a risk Malick thought worth taking four years ago. It’s a risk moviegoers, even moviegoers habitually disinclined from risk-taking when it comes to their film choices should take.

Not surprisingly, The Tree of Life demands repeat viewings for its masterful combination of sound and image, Malick’s intentionally amorphous ambiguities, his metaphysical musings, and for an affecting, melancholic coming-of-age story.