Mrs. O'Brien: You'll be grown before that tree is tall.
THE TREE OF LIFE is a true film experience. Writer/Director, Terrence Malick’s latest opus is an assault of the best kind on your eyes, your ears and your mind. It is mesmerizing from the moment it begins with a pattern of dancing waves of colored light flowing in the center of a black screen. Whispers can be heard in the distance, birds too, seagulls maybe. It is a total mystery what lies ahead but you can feel its weight, its magnitude, its inevitable magnificence. THE TREE OF LIFE is a journey, one with remarkable richness in every frame. When the journey ends though, its insight isn’t as revelatory as its grandness suggests it should be.
Malick has famously been tinkering and toiling over THE TREE OF LIFE for more than two years now. And while his hyper-perfectionism might drive the man himself to the brink of potential madness, it has once again served to create a film so fluid and inviting that I felt as though I was floating through space and time along with it. Despite its subject matter, which I will get into shortly, THE TREE OF LIFE has an airy quality to it. Alexandre Desplat’s (THE KING’S SPEECH) piano and string score carries you effortlessly into the sky on the wind, allowing you to look down upon Emmanuel Lubezki’s (CHILDREN OF MEN) breathtaking cinematography and just gaze longingly at its immense beauty. The film is then cut together in non-linear sequence so seamlessly that it never seems to matter at all just how little it all comes together at times.
Malick’s screenplay is a vast contemplation on life, its meanings and lack there of. It may be perhaps a tad bit too vast though. Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien (Brad Pitt and the captivating Jessica Chastain) have just lost one of their three sons at the age of 19. Their grief and regrets run so deep that they transcend time, affecting not only the present but the future of their remaining children as well. As an adult, their son, Jack O’Brien (Sean Penn), has never gotten over the loss of his brother, let alone the drastically different views his parents instilled on him. Malick seems to be musing on the continuity of issues and pain as passed down from generation to generation, how one moment in time can affect all the others to varying degrees. To really drive his point home hard, Malick expands his theory to the dawn of time, taking his film into a lengthy segue showcasing the creation of the universe. Life forms have always affected the others around them and they can appear and disappear without warning or explanation, rendering most of our problems completely pointless.
The obvious but supposed deeper meaning in THE TREE OF LIFE forces the viewer to think there must be more to this, that any experience this spectacular must contain clues to puzzles I’ve never been able to fully understand. Only the idea that our souls continue on throughout time, destined to struggle with the same issues the whole way, despite our ability to decide how we approach and master our troubles, is not exactly new. For as much depth as THE TREE OF LIFE portends to have, it rests fairly comfortable on the surface most of the time. It is however one of the loveliest surfaces I’ve ever stared into.