After you've seen Tree of Life, check out our Spoiler Special discussion:
I'm typing this review outdoors, looking up intermittently at the leaves of a tree in the wind. It seemed an appropriate place to work, given that the movie I'm reviewing is The Tree of Life, in which the director, Terrence Malick, returns obsessively to an image he's long favored: a tall tree seen from far below, sun filtering through its dense branches. But, truth be told, I'm doing a crap job of looking at this tree. When Malick sees a tree, he really see s it—and by some alchemy of camerawork, language, and music I'm still trying to figure out, he offers you that experience in such a way that it feels like your own. Here's a testament to this reclusive, stubborn, visionary director's stunning achievement: His films can change the way you look at the world by showing you how another person sees it.
The Tree of Life is Malick's fifth movie in a 38-year-long career as a filmmaker. That averages out to about one movie every eight years—though in practice the gap between films has varied from as short as five years (between his first film, Badlands, and his second, Days of Heaven) to as long as 20 (between Days of Heaven and his next, The Thin Red Line).His films feel like events both for their rarity and for their uniqueness of voice: Malick doesn't seem to come from any particular school or movement or, indeed, era.
This timeless quality is more apparent than ever in The Tree of Life, a movie that is, in large part, about time and the mystery of our passage through it. "Where were you when I laid the earth's foundations?" God asks Job in the Biblical epigraph that opens the film. In the context of the Book of Job, this reads as a somewhat guiltifying rhetorical question: Who are you to complain, buddy? But Malick's intent is to pose the question seriously. Where were we when the earth's foundations were laid, whether by God or by the inexorable laws of science? (Either way, the mystery is equally great.) And if we could somehow be present to witness the beginning of everything, would that help us to understand our own lives?
The particular life at stake is that of a man named Jack, played by Sean Penn as an adult and by Hunter McCracken as a child. (McCracken is a nonprofessional actor, a Texas boy Malick found at the end of a long casting search, whose round, serious face registers emotion with the sensitivity of a wind chime.) Jack the adult seems anxious and disconnected; an architect, he spends most of his days alone in sterile skyscrapers and cold minimalist apartments. But Jack's memories of his Waco childhood are just the opposite, filled with trees and rivers and the warm, pressing clutter of family life. That doesn't mean Jack's childhood was completely happy—his father (Brad Pitt), an aerospace engineer, could be rigid and tyrannical, though he also had a fierce love for his three sons. And, like every child, Jack struggled with the difficulties of being a human, coming to terms with the reality of suffering and the certainty of loss.
But wait! To fully understand Jack's situation you have to know something about his mother (Jessica Chastain), a nature-loving free spirit who might, in the Romantic era, have been called a "beautiful soul." (She's certainly a beautiful body, a tall freckled redhead with a pre-Raphaelite gleam.) And you should probably witness a moment or two of his mother's childhood. And—oh, screw it, to get the whole picture you really need to go back to the Big Bang. In a perhaps 15-minute flashback (hard to tell as this movie suspends the viewer's sense of time), Malick takes us through a few billion years of cosmic history: the formation of the universe, stars, and planets; the cooling of the Earth; the first microscopic signs of life; and, eventually, the dinosaurs, two of whom we witness as they enact a short reptile drama that will be the subject of many a post-movie discussion.
How exactly this cosmic-history segment gets away with not being portentous is anybody's guess. Maybe it's the music, a mix of soaring Romantic themes (Mahler, Brahms) and a limpid original score by Alexandre Desplat. Or the special effects, which are extraordinary but never spectacular. Kubrick's shots of outer space in 2001: A Space Odyssey felt ominous and mythic; Malick's have the quiet accuracy of a NASA video sent from space. Watching the asteroid that will kill off the dinosaurs hurtle toward the atmosphere, we think, "There was a moment when this happened," and are awed. But the astronomical flashback isn't without a measure of wit as well; the sheer scope of it is a kind of joke on the impossibility of storytelling. The notion of returning to the birth of the universe to kick off your movie is a way of going Tristram Shandy—who couldn't tell his story without a detailed account of his conception—one better.
The middle section of the film, in which we follow Jack's childhood in a series of fragmented memories from birth until about the age of 12, is as astonishingly precise a rendering of the way the world looks to a child as I've seen on film. You know that Emily Dickinson poem about "a certain slant of light"? Every slant of light in this movie is a certain slant of light, evocative of an individual and irreplaceable moment in time. The camera—wielded by Emanuel Lubezki, who also performed cinematographic miracles in Children of Men—not only creates visually beautiful images (like the recurring painterly close-ups of the mother rinsing her feet in a lawn sprinkler.) It provides Jack's perspective on what we're seeing, makes us notice the things he notices, whether it's light from a jack-o'-lantern held down at a toddler's eye level or a tiny, momentous shift of expression on a parent's face.
After the profundity and beauty of this Texas section, The Tree of Life's last 20 minutes, in which we rejoin Sean Penn in his skyscraper and accompany him on an enigmatic encounter with his past self, felt like a letdown to me, a somewhat banal coda to a film that previously soared so dazzlingly high. (I won't say more here, but the ending is discussed in the Spoiler Special podcast attached to this review.) Maybe any film that starts with the Big Bang has to end with something of a whimper. The beginning of life—Jack's, the earth's, everyone's—is something that, however mysteriously, has already happened. The end of life is still, perhaps mercifully, impossible to imagine. In the meantime, see this movie.