Dir. Terrence Malick
(2011, PG-13, 139 min)
There are a lot of ideas contained within Terrence Malick‘s The Tree of Life, so many that I couldn’t keep hold of any one for long. I’m not sure Malick does either. It opens with tragedy: Mrs. O’Brien (Jessica Chastain), a suburban mother, receives a telegram informing her that her middle son has died. What follows is a montage of mourning so vague it takes us a while to learn that the boy was nineteen at his time of death, and we never learn the exact cause, though perhaps he was killed in action somewhere – I’m not sure how many other kinds of death notices come by telegram, though not many deliverers of death notices are as nonchalant as this one. Those are the kinds of details that preoccupied me during this film, but never mind that for now. What is important is that a child has died, and the existential journey that follows – tracing, it seems, the birth of the universe and the beginnings of life on Earth – seems to be driven by that terrible grief.
But then the film switches tracks, drifting through the cosmos and briefly observing the era of dinosaurs before returning us to the O’Brien family, the births and upbringing of their three children, and the domineering parentage of the father, Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt), who earns the resentment and finally hatred of his oldest son, Jack (Hunter McCracken), and in this story – the middle child’s eventual death is all but forgotten at this point – Malick makes a connection between Jack’s relationship with his father and our spiritual relationship with the Father. Raised in an observant Christian household, Jack begins to notice hypocrisy in what he’s been taught. Both God and Mr. O’Brien demand perfect obedience while giving back little in return: allowing death, withholding affection, not subject to the same moral strictures he imposes. Why should Jack be good when he – or He – does whatever he wants?
And yet this theme seems to evaporate as well, leading to a climax and conclusion of baffling abstraction. The problem, I think, is that the big approach (the universe, existential angst, life as we know it) and the small approach (the intimacy of the family unit) never feel like they belong to the same film. One obscures instead of clarifying the other. Not helping matters is Malick’s use of portentous voice-over narration, the kind that so rankled me in his earlier film The Thin Red Line. It’s spoken in hushed whispers that seem intended to evoke a plaintive mood, but I found it simply pretentious, and the words themselves ring hollow once you get past their pseudo-philosophical tone. “Mother, father, always you wrestle inside me,” says Sean Penn as an adult Jack, a character who is never clarified apart from being anguished about his past. “I didn’t know how to name You then. But I see it was You. Always You were calling me. ” Always calling, but nobody’s home.
I spent the film thinking at the screen, but not especially absorbed by what was on it. It is predictably beautiful in its cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki, but even that can only carry you so far. I left with a shrug and a sigh, and the more I think about it, the less satisfying it becomes.