By Christopher Binder (Lorton, Virginia, USA)
Warning: major spoilers down below. Read on at your own peril.
The film has a lot in common with the book of Job from the Bible (which coincidentally is my favorite). Right off the bat it starts off with a quotation, “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation…while the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” A small first part of the film deals with the results of the death of a son in the O’Brian family which leads to Mrs. O’Brian posing the question to God as to why this happened to them. This of course is what serves to next show us the “Birth of the Universe” sequence referenced in the opening quotation. A stunningly breath taking 22 minutes where we see galaxies and planets form without the use of computer generated imagery. I have to applaud Terrence Malick for hiring Douglas Trumbull to do this the old fashioned way (minus the dinosaurs of course).
I can recall about a month ago having a “conversation” with a friend of a friend about recreating something using CGI rather than any other of the old fashioned camera tricks. CGI can be good if you have the money but The Tree of Life again confirms for me that doing things the old fashioned way can yield results that have an authenticity to them that CGI simply can’t compete with. I even read a random review where the person said the effects looked and felt more real and solid the way they were done. The music was incredible too and had an epic, cosmic feel to it that gave me goose bumps.
The brief dinosaur scene was important to the film too despite some people I had heard laughing at it. In a forest, a young dinosaur cautiously walks around for predators. Later on a riverbank, the dinosaur lies sick. A predator emerges and examines the wounded dinosaur. Preparing for the kill the predator then reconsiders as he watches it struggle against him. The predator wanders off. The point of this is to show that even in nature there is grace, something similar to that which Mrs. O’Brian had stated earlier in the film.
Anyway moving on the core of the film centers on the eldest of the three O’Brian brothers, Jack, as he grows up into adolescence and learns the life lessons and experiences that will mold him later in life. I think this is where Malick is at his best. His style while filming these scenes was to capture a moment, an accident. The results have such a realistic feel to them it’s hard to believe anybody was actually acting at all. Brad Pitt gives I think his best new performance as the borderline abusive father with overwhelming love for his wife and kids. He occasionally takes out his anger and frustration on them over his current life situation and I guess you could say that’s his main character flaw. He represents the nature way of life while his wife, Mrs. O’Brian, played appropriately with angelic grace by Jessica Chastain, represents well, what else, grace. She as a mother is more carefree and forgiving than Mr. O’Brian. Hunter McCracken as young Jack does a fantastic job showing a further and further conflicted young man as he grows older and feels the natural twitches of rebellion that come with adolescence.
Sean Penn lastly does well as the older Jack who has lost his faith and is adrift in the modern world. His internal state is wonderfully reflected in the architecture of the city where he works (Dallas, TX). When Jack is young his surroundings are a very simple neighborhood whereas when he is older he is in a large, complex city that one could easily get lost in without a sense of direction. It’s amazing how personal some of these scenes were. Little instances like learning how to walk, feeling jealousy at a baby brother being the new center of attention, playing in the street on a summer afternoon, dinner at the table, church on Sundays etc.
Simple things we don’t notice too much that contain elements that change us into who we are when we are older. All of these are wonderfully recreated and have a human feeling to them that was lacking in Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey, the film most compare this one to for obvious reasons.
I’m sure the none narrative structure of this film threw off most who saw it but you can’t read this film like you would a book. To do that will simply frustrate you. I found myself sometimes trying to read it as a narrative only to tell myself to shut up and knock it off. The film is more like visual poetry. It’s something you have to surrender to and experience. Doing so actually made me recall something I had read from a letter my Cinema teacher at VCU where I go to college had said many years ago about this sort of thing.
“The metaphor most frequently used to interpret a film is that of a text. (We can thank both the semiotic/linguistic theorists, the genre folks and the pop critics for that.) All start off with a notion that to understand/”read” a film, it must first somehow be “text”… It must be a linguistic code…rational…logical etc. Their job is a task of interpretation, a hermeneutic function based on personal taste which then becomes an act of criticism. But what if the film under discussion was constructed as “event”? What if the filmmakers reject a single authorized reading/interpretation of a film as the “truth” What if the film is not about the intentions of a single author? What if the filmmaker’s understanding of how film operates in a social context is informed by a different metaphor than that of text and hence the interpretation of the intentions of an auteur are not relevant? I use “event” as a model for the organization of meaning within the filmic experience.
That does not render the film itself as meaningless… but rather, the film itself is designed to allow different paths of interpretation within the event. This allows an audience member to experience and understand/choose from a set of possible interpretations their own meanings. The viewer not the critic or the director becomes central in the creation of meaning within the event. No longer are my narrative “intentions” as director the locus for the “true” interpretation of the event. As such the film-event can then work under another rule… another metaphor other than “text” one that better contours the thing in itself which is cinema.”
I certainly think films like The Tree of Life pertain to the above and I can understand why people hate Hollywood for not backing more of these types of films. After The Tree of Life won the Palme d’Or this past May I was very sure and hopeful it would be expanded into many theaters nationwide but sadly it wasn’t and I had to seize the opportunity to travel a ways to catch a showing and even then like I said before in a small dump of a theater I never heard of or been to before. Quite the travesty if you loved the film as much as I did.
Some closing thoughts:
I find myself quite annoyed at people who find the film pretentious. As I’ve said before in the past pretentious is such a knee jerk term these days. It’s almost a reflex for somebody to say when something strides for greatness or is just plain different. Ambitious is not pretentious.
I believe the strange light (taken from Thomas Wilfred’s “Opus 161”) that appears at the beginning and the end and in some intervals in the film is supposed to represent God, the Alpha and Omega. Several shots also show the sun in the sky. At one point Mrs. O’Brian even points there and tells Jack “That’s where God lives.” There is even a brief shot of some reflected light on Jacks bedroom wall when he is a baby.
The “Afterlife” sequence at the end is I don’t think really the afterlife or a form of Heaven at all. My own personal interpretation is that its Old Jack bringing together all the memories of all the people in or were in his life together reconciling with them. Putting his demons to rest so to speak. That this is juxtaposed with the death of the universe signals the end of something. In this case most likely Jacks inner turmoil. I feel this way about this because after the sequence is over we cut back to Jack riding down the elevator and walking outside where he stops and gives a little bit of a smile, as if he feels reasonably better.