Not without controversy, the Palme d’Or at Cannes this year was awarded to The Tree of Life, the fifth film in nearly forty years by American director Terrence Malick. As the title suggests, The Tree of Life attempts to relate our cosmic origins, the mundane and sometimes tragic occurrences of our lives, and aspects of our emotional and spiritual selves like love, redemption, and forgiveness. Without too much spoiler, the anniversary of a tragedy necessitates a phone call between father and son. Most of the film is spent on a journey through the son’s memories and thoughts on existential questions that are ultimately raised when one recalls an event of this enormity, as if the viewer were privy to the flashbacks and mental images behind the closed eyelids of a person deep in recollection. As such, The Tree of Life is impressionistic and not strictly temporally ordered, which may alienate filmgoers – it continues to polarize critics after Cannes.
But what a stunning collection of images. Malick is apparently not a fan of CGI, and brought Douglas Trumbull (Blade Runner, 2001: A Space Odyssey, to which most critics compare this film) out of a twenty-year hiatus to direct the special effects. There are depictions of dinosaurs, cellular processes, and primitive life-forms. NASA was consulted on footage of the early universe (e.g. structure formation) and of various astronomical bodies like nebulae. It’s fair to say that not all of the aforementioned footage is necessary or sensical, but Malick’s intention was not to make a coherent film. Emmanuel Lubezki (Children of Men, The New World, Malick’s previous oeuvre) does sublime work behind the camera. I’m not a connoisseur and I don’t have a great memory for movies, but Lubezki’s cinematography on Children of Men was marvellous, especially the car scene for its technical prowess and the battle scene for its length and the subtlety with which the camera captures minute differences in shades of grey. Here, he reinforces the idea that the viewer is watching fragments of memory. The camera roves, shooting from unorthodox angles and highlighting saturated colours and shadows, capturing a rare sense of intimacy.
Bob Mendello of NPR summarizes it perfectly: “There’s not a frame of The Tree of Life — not one — that I wouldn’t love to have hanging on a wall in my home. And there are relatively few frames of The Tree of Life that I’m sure I entirely understand.” The images are coupled with a soundtrack of classical music (including some original pieces by Alexandre Desplat) over which Malick likely had considerable say. As Ross states in his article, the film’s music is especially important in light of the father’s background. I was familiar with a few of the pieces, and the use of Smetana’s Moldau was most striking to me — the freedom of the flowing waters of a river translated to the freedom of the seemingly infinite possibilities in childhood. The “Lacrimosa“, sung by a soprano, is heard during some of the spoken narrative, as the mourner’s cry often accompanies the big question of, “Why?”
The main portion of The Tree of Life is essentially autobiographical. Malick is famously reclusive, but an article in Vanity Fair contains some details regarding his personal history. The disciplinarian father and the idealized mother seem to mirror his view of his parents, and both families have three sons. Malick had “terrible fights with his father, often over trivial issues”, and did not “allow [his mother] to read the script of The Thin Red Line because of the profanity”. The film erects a layer of emotional protection around the mother, and devotes considerable screen time to the fraught relationship between Mr. O’Brien and his eldest son, Jack. The first voiceover makes this polarization clear, but I think there is justification. Although we may enjoy movies with complex, grey characters, our memories of people close to us, especially those who have a significant effect on who we are, can be biased and more aligned along the axis of “good and bad”. The viewer may not sympathize with Mr. O’Brien, but Brad Pitt does an excellent job of showcasing the multiple facets of the patriarch. Jessica Chastain effectively communicates the ethereal “grace” of Mrs. O’Brien, mostly through her physical performance.
Hunter McCracken’s portrayal of Jack is one of the highlights of the movie. Through minimal changes in facial expression, he displays the spectrum of emotions of a son trying desperately to live up to his father’s expectations, a teenager wrestling with angst, and a sibling looking out for his younger brothers. One particular combination of scenes between Jack and the youngest brother was exceptional. The first involves a game of trust and a BB-gun, but it has no ominous music or close-ups of fearful eyes. The downplay of dramatic tension renders the fraternal tenderness and sense of absolution in the reconciliation of the second scene all the more remarkable and poignant. In the context of Malick’s personal history, this second scene may be the most important of the film.
Ultimately, The Tree of Life asks us to love. A simple request, and if it sounds overly earnest and cliche, one might want to wait for another day to watch the film. Some questions linger in my mind. What really drove Malick to make this film, why did he shoot it in this manner, and what did he personally get out of the project? Perhaps it was simply a sense of guilt and things left unspoken, and this work is an expression of his love. Unfortunately, the answers will likely remain as unknown as those to the larger questions asked in The Tree of Life.