I wish, now, that I’d seen The Tree of Life in the theater. On the other hand, after a winter of rabid movie-going, it’s a thrill to see a film that has so much going for it that it clearly stands out from the pack.
The Tree of Life is a rendering of childhood in the 1950s, in Waco, Texas. It’s also a visual history of the universe. Through much of the film three brother shout, torture frogs, wrestle in the weeds (Can’t you hear the crickets chirping?), hang out with their deviant friends, play the guitar, obey their domineering father (Brad Pitt), fall in love with their charming mother (Jessica Chastain), go to church, go down to the creek, challenge and test one another, climb trees. Most of the time their conversation consists of murmurs and mumbles. Much of the time it seems we’re hearing what they’re thinking, rather than what they’re actually saying.
There is also quite a bit of whispered voice-over.
To add to the mesmeric effect of experienced childhood (rather than narrative, plot-driven stories about childhood), in The Tree of Life director Terrence Malick brings the jump cut to the level of fine art. (A “jump-cut,” I ought to mention, is a cut between two shots of the same character or scene that have almost, but not quite, the same angle, rather than a reverse angle or a cut to a distinctly different scene or character. This technique, in effect, reminds us of the presence of the camera, but also seems to convey the fluid yet stop-and-go nature of life and memory. After a while you cease to notice it and a dream-like atmosphere develops. It’s the Cubism of cinema.)
Malick frames this central focus on childhood experience between two specific events, one small, the other large. The “small” event is that one of the brothers dies. (We don’t see it and we never learn how, and the event comes so early in the film that I don’t mind mentioning it here.)
The “large” event is actually a sequence of events—the creation of the universe and the development of life on the planet Earth. There is extended footage in the first half of the film of cosmic events—nebulae expanding, volcanoes erupting, micro-organisms developing—with ethereal religious music sounding in the background. It all seems a bit like a cross between that BBC series Planet Earth and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.
It's interesting to note that for the “creation” sequences Malick turned to Douglas Trumbull, who created the spectacular effects in 2001, but hadn’t worked on a film since Blade Runner. Avoiding computer-generated effects, they mixed liquids of varying viscosity in a tank and filmed the reactions, arriving at an effect that resembles the images sent back from NASA exploratory spacecraft.
But astronomer Volker Bromm, associate professor in the Department of Astronomy at the University of Texas at Austin, also played an important role. He commented later:
When I had the first meeting with Terry Malick he said that he wanted to get it right…he didn’t want to just make up stuff—say you have visual effects in Star Trek or Star Wars—he wanted to do the real thing. The closest we can come is a computer simulation of the universe because at this point we cannot directly observe it; therefore, having a computer simulation is the closest thing to how it really was at that time. He wanted to tell the history of the universe with as much realism as possible. Then we translated our simulation into a visualization. The question was always—Does it look right? Does it catch the scientific idea behind it? The visual effects people were very accommodating in trying to get it right and to make me happy.The Tree of Life is better than 2001, perhaps, because it remains rooted in organic development rather than the esoteria of space travel and super-human computers.
Well, no need to compare. It’s a different sort of film altogether. What 2001 and The Tree of Life have in common is metaphysical ambition. (In fact, due to the presence of Brad Pitt in the cast, some theaters felt it prudent to post disclaimers warning viewers that they were about to enter a philosophical experience and not to demand their money back if they didn’t like it.)
Kubrick may be asking where life is going, but Malick is asking us to consider what life is really like. Why are men and women so different? Why do kids act out? And most importantly, why is God so unjust?
Music plays a large role in the film. Brad Pitt, in the role of Mr. O’Brien, is a largely unsympathetic character, and the fact that he finds solace and inspiration in playing and listening to music seems to make his authoritarian insensitivity that much harder to take.
On the other hand, his middle son plays the guitar angelically. (Malick’s own younger brother studied classical guitar with Segovia in Spain, later willfully broke both his hands and then committed suicide.)
The soundtrack is loaded with classical gems that sometimes border on cornball, from Smetana’s The Moldau to Górecki’s Third Symphony, along with Mozart, Brahms, Couperin, Berlioz, and an assortment of obscure and atmospheric tone-poems that establish an indelible atmosphere of mystery—alluring or sinister, we’re not quite sure.(To see the complete list, and hear some of the numbers, click here.)
Sean Penn seems like a duck out of water in his role as one of the grown-up brothers, and cynics may chuckle at the Hallmark Greeting Card nature of some of the imagery, especially of the final celestial scenes on the beach. I bought the whole package. I was raised in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, which might be worth mentioning. But the estimable Roger Ebert remarked, “I don't know when a film has connected more immediately with my own personal experience. In uncanny ways, the central events of The Tree of Life reflect a time and place I lived in, and the boys in it are me.”
So, is this a film about boys, and for boys? When the movie was over, my wife Hilary, who was raised in Minnetonka, Minnesota, said, “That’s my childhood.”