Brad Pitt once asked, “If our fathers are our models for God, what does that say about God?” Starring Pitt, Terrence Malick’s latest film The Tree of Life taps into the familial as it relates to the supreme “I Am,” with the great human questions of the soul echoed in spectacular images of the cosmic and earthly. There’s a human compulsion to categorize and simplify and it’s no different when it comes to religion: whether Richard Dawkins ridicules ignorant blind believers or Pat Buchanan scolds godless heathen countries, it’s an unseemly dichotomy especially virulent in U.S. society. Anyone who tries to perform the same flimflam in describing Tree of Life should be shackled in the town square, as it shoots for the human holy with carrying a crusading flag.
According to The Tree of Life cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (Children of Men, The New World) in the July issue of Sight and Sound, traditional filmmaking dictates, “You wait for the director to block the scene and then try to work out how to shoot it. With Terry [Malick] it’s much more about trying to find the material than impose on it.”
This approach to filmcraft is apparent in the sprawling, contemplative epic, during which we hold our breath as a toddler comes face to face with his new baby brother and flinches when the baby’s arm spasms. Malick and Lubezki’s ability to capture holy moments (or True moments), acts as the film’s gasoline. It’s a two-hour haiku to humanity and to…however you would describe “God” without hog-tying him to quotidian terms. The film was allegedly shot on over a million feet of film (2,000 feet is considered long), and the cast and crew took over a suburban neighborhood in Texas, constantly shooting and never talking about continuity. “Terry would say, don’t worry about getting a piece of dialogue or an interaction of the actors, but try to get the feeling of the first time being in a room with them,” Lubezki told The New York Times.
The Tree of Life does start off like a newborn foal on shaky legs, with issues of continuity felt in the first act. Bearing the names of five editors, the film struggles to tether the 1950’s Texas family to the otherworldly space and nature imagery. Fortunately, the film quickly rebounds to flesh out an evocative canoe ride through the gradually growing family of Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien’s (Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain).
Once their three boys reach adolescence, Mr. O’Brien’s dominant male parenting style leads to rebellion and discontent. Pitt, embodying the era’s emotionally stranded, alpha male mentality with a crew cut and thick black glasses, continues to explore masculine identity (Fight Club, Babel, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) in gutsy moves away from the comfort of the Hollywood A-List roster. It would be easy to allow Mr. O’Brien to fall into caricature, but Pitt somehow manages to show there’s more than malice to the man. You can see he’s trying to reach his kids out of love, and it’s perplexing to him when his way fails. An ambassador between two different worlds (the cold, metallic noise cacophony of the man-made workplace vs the lush visual and symphonic sounds of nature at home), Mr. O’Brien’s quest for redemption defies showiness, but still holds your gaze.
Mr. O’Brien exemplifies the dog-eat-dog path of Nature, while Mrs. O’Brien embodies the road of Grace. They couldn’t have found a better actress, as Jessica Chastain’s tenderness with her boys, from baby cuddling to house horseplay when Dad is away, is a striking contrast to her male counterpart.
The juxtaposed parenting personalities have far-reaching effects on the children’s worldviews. Eldest brother Jack (Hunter McCacken) and middle child R.L. (Leremie Eppler) shoulder most of the film’s arc, reacting in divergent manners to their father’s domineering attitude: Jack straying into the cruel sphere of Darwinian Nature and R.L. holding close to his mother’s embodiment of Grace. Running around the yard and playing games of trust requiring them to stick a finger over a BB gun barrel, the young actors don’t feel like hired guns, but boys with genuine blood bonds. Casting personnel Vicky Boone and Francine Maisler are worth their weight in gold.
The film’s focus on Jack’s fall from grace as he simultaneously rebels against his father while embodying him (which could be said of most sons) is at the crux of the film, exemplifying humanity’s hunger for forgiveness and longing for peace (from within and with others). The film’s theme of love and its closing scenes will likely prompt some to cast it straight into the Christian or the sentimental, but it largely avoids any such branding by comfortably straddling universal conflicts of the soul.
The Tree of Life stands in stark contrast to last year’s Enter the Void, which dabbles in similar themes, but with a bleaker worldview. Bathed in a sickly neon light, Enter the Void‘s world is that of the urban night, where the (literally) disembodied point of view of Oscar watches as the people of Tokyo wander through an environment of suffering, occasionally uplifted by earthly pleasure. Punctuated by the film’s belief in resurrection, it’s hard to think of a better image of hell. Malick and Lubezki’s total use of natural lighting, vibrant green suburban neighborhoods, and omnipresent daylight make The Tree of Life a much more optimistic picture of human destiny.
With less of the shrieking emotional pitch of The Fountain (which I loved regardless), The Tree of Life is a subtle film, but not to the point of supreme arthouse alienation. Some of the one-shot bits of narration flounder, but the mix of tender actors and compassionate craftsmen bring out the best in one another, making The Tree of Life another Malick film that’s sure to stand the ages.
It’s amusing, too, that the film should come out during the summer big budget blockbuster season. A time known for “AWESOME SPECIAL EFFECTS!” where various CGI creatures, stunts, and environments dazzle hundreds of millions of dollars worth of eyes, The Tree of Life manages to put them all to shame by showcasing the special effects of nature. Synced with hymns and classical orchestra pieces, shots of Saturn, canyons, or even lowly trees become spectacular visual treats.
Established faiths around the world (and even agnostics/atheists) rely on the written word to convey their wisdom, and must labor under the strain built into the medium, in which one must describe the wholly other, the indescribable. In filming The Tree of Life, Malick doesn’t have to tell you what God is like, phrase grace, or box it with labels – he can show it to you.
Arresting visual poetry, The Tree of Life is the best kind of prayer.