I think I have made up my mind about Tree of Life – it’s a good movie. I’m not sure yet that it is a Great Movie, but it certainly is a Good Movie. It’s visually beautiful. And from what I have read, that beauty was accomplished with almost no CGI, except for one scene involving dinosaurs, and even that somehow managed not to be stupid (I can’t think of a movie with dinosaurs that wasn’t laughable).
There is almost no dialogue. Some of the best scenes don’t involve any words at all. The torrent of mixed emotions and confusing thoughts running through the head of a young boy as he seriously contemplates murdering his own father is conveyed by nothing more than effective framing and to the point facial expressions. The traumatizing breach of trust between two brothers is beautifully foreshadowed and then realized without a single word being spoken.
The visual metaphors are clear, but not heavy-handed. Malick is not beyond using conventional movie tools, but in his hands they do not feel cheap and manipulative. The soft light of the scenes set in the protagonists memories make sense, conveying not so much the wistful adulation of the past, as they are meant to underline the uncertain reliability of childhood memories.
Flashbacks are too often an easy cheat for mediocre storytellers who cannot think of a better way to flesh out the inner life of the protagonist. But Malick doesn’t use flashbacks to explain the actions of his protagonist in the present. Jack’s adult self (Sean Penn), whose childhood is at the narrative heart of what little there is of a story, doesn’t do much more than ride up and down an elevator, walk into a meeting, talk on his cellphone, and look at a tree between towering high-rises.
None of which matters much, accomplishes anything, conveys any tension or expectation, and all of which could be done just as plausibly by somebody whose childhood was free of any worry, and whose relationship with his father was cozy and warm. (If Malick has anything to say about our childhoods , it is probably that as long as we weren’t beaten to a pulp on a regular basis, sexually abused, or caught up in a warzone, we’re probably going to be alright and turn into normal functioning adults.)
The banality of the present day in The Tree of Life is probably not accidental – all the drama, tension, and even beauty seems to be part of our past, and rather than being a precise recollection is more the result of personal myth-making. It is unlikely that Mrs. Obrien (Jack’s mother, played very beautifully by Jessica Chastain) was as quiet or demure as Jack remembers. At least one of his memories show that she was quite capable of standing up to Jack’s father (Brad Pitt), though Jack can’t hear what they are saying to each other, and seems not too interested in finding out. As if children ever really care why their parents are fighting – it’s not what matters to them.
The most curious scene of all comes towards the end, and here Malick is far less clear as to where reality ends and imagination begins. Are we witnessing Malick’s personal vision of life after death? Is Jack simply allowing his thoughts to drift into the weird fantasy world where everything that’s bad is washed away, and while hardly a plausible paradise, it nonetheless provides some kind of wistful comfort?
Since Malicks timing is so spot-on throughout the film, the overlong, overly repetitive structure of that scene cannot have been a slip of judgement. I’m not entirely sure what it was meant to convey, but maybe that will reveal itself on a second viewing.
The end of the film neatly closes the visual circle, with glorious imagery and beautiful sounds. Life will end, eventually. Our species will pass away somehow – just like the dinosaurs before us. Strangely enough, it does not feel depressing at all, at least not to me, and I generally resent this particular aspect of reality. Instead, it feels alright. Just the way it should be, and not because humanity is damned and deserves no better, but simply because that’s the way it is.
What’s also quite surprising about the Tree of Life is the music. Music is normally the bane of movies. Too often, it points out the obvious. Weeping strings when one should be sad, pounding bass when one should be tense, shrill disharmonies when one should be afraid. Most directors seem not to have enough faith in either their directing abilities or the intelligence of their audience to let the logic of the story and what is on the screen determine the emotional response. Yes, music is necessary to set the mood – that’s just how our emotions seem to work – but like soy sauce on sushi, there is a point at which it becomes too much and assaults our senses, rather than stimulate them.
The music in Tree of Life is big. It’s powerful, it’s dramatic, it’s emotional. But oddly enough, it never feels too much. It works with the images on the screen, and even thought it is often very loud, it always feels just right. And in a few brilliant scenes, the music tells the story in harmony with the images and actions of the people we observe. I can’t think of many directors who have been able to work with music as effectively as Malick does in Tree of Life. Maybe Leone or Kubrick, but to compare Malick’s use of music in Tree of Life to either of them does injustice to all.
And as for commentators who compare Malick’s cinematography and narrative ambition to Kubrick, they are right at a technical level, but it should be pointed out that there is none of Kubrick’s vicious sneer and contempt towards humanity to be found in Tree of Life. If anything, Tree of Life may be an inadvertent rebuke to the philosophy of Kubrick: yes, life is short and cosmically futile, but it does not necessarily have to be empty and obscene.
Instead, it can be beautiful.