Enthusiasts have vigilantly followed Terrence Malick's rather plodding yet stunning career of more than thirty years--from Badlands (1973) on through The Thin Red Line (1998) and further. The excitement just might reach an even higher pitch now with this auteur's latest indelible film, The Tree of Life (2011). To use the brazen words of the young Jack O'Brien, Malick's central protagonist: The Tree of Life indeed feels like such an exuberant "experiment" that tests so many boundaries throughout the loose narrative. However, it likewise (and more often) feels like a carefully wrought plan. Whether that plan succeeds or not perhaps depends upon one's values, aesthetics, and/or simply patience. First, the film forces the viewer to do some heavy critical thinking, associative leaps, and serious interpretive "work." Images and themes are rhymed, riffed on, and paralleled throughout with such surprising intensity that the time spent merely "watching" is nearly equal to that spent in simultaneous contemplation. Ultimately, the active viewer should find the experience a rewarding one--and with a plethora of rich images and meanings to sift through. In short, however, the film follows the childhood of Jack O'Brien (the youth played by a talented, unknown Hunter McCracken, and the adult Jack played by Sean Penn). Like so many childhoods, the feelings and memories are not easily forgotten: the innocence lost; a tyrannical father (Brad Pitt) steeped in the ever-restricting box of conservative Christianity in 1950s, middle-class America; and the bonds of brotherhood forever felt but torn apart by an early death in the family.
While the O'Brien family thus remains a narrative centerpiece or grounding point for the film, clearly larger themes are at work here. Certainly the film delivers several stirring performances and poignant moments with regards to the acting talents who represent the O'Brien family: again, Penn, Pitt, Jessica Chastain (who plays Mrs. O'Brien), and especially McCracken. However, Malick frames his entire, seemingly simple American family drama with the powerful complexity of an experimental formalist--also via an agnostic's utterly critical yet awestruck vision of the world, even the universe.
First, from the angle of a rather cerebral though nonetheless emotionally fulfilling approach to cinema, Malick understands his medium all too well by this juncture in his career. Also, by a likely combination of intuition, study, and experience, Malick knows the very pivotal, inherent strengths of film. As in The Thin Red Line, The Tree of Life demonstrates, too, the very nature of the uniquely epic and fluid canvas that cinema offers. The edges of every shot seem to wrap around in a grand mimicry of peripheral vision as well. Take, for example, the figure of the mother wandering in a salt flat's vast blanket of white--or the inverted play of boys' shadows on the surface of a street in mid-summer. And, surely, these brilliantly crafted images are in no small part thanks to the cinematography of Emmanuel Lubezki (who has worked with Malick before, and with other renowned filmmakers like the Coen brothers and Alfonso Cuarcin). Just as prevalent in Malick and Lubezki's collaboration: hardly, if any, a still shot or moment is to be found in The Tree of Life. What could be more appropriate for a medium whose primary principle is that of motion? Even in the very few instances where the camera or frame is stationary, the filmmakers still place within the shot something utterly constant in its movement and flux. For example, we see a vague but continuously twisting, rainbow-hued cosmic element--something that, again, seems to be "rhymed" with images elsewhere of moving, even entwining, human hands.
(Also of special note about the visual intensity, and on a more comparative level: not too long before Malick's film, Werner Herzog recently released his own spectacular Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010), a rare documentary feature shot entirely in 3-D. …