20th Nov2018

‘The Tree of Life’ Blu-ray Review (Criterion)

by Rupert Harvey

Stars: Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain, Sean Penn, Hunter McCracken, Laramie Eppler, Tye Sheridan | Written and Directed by Terrence Malick

tree-life-blu

Present day, and a late-middle-aged Jack O’Brien (Sean Penn) is stalking his plush modernist house in a state of numbness. He is materially successful, but he’s still grieving for his brother, who died aged 19. We never see what happens to the brother, but our route into Jack’s childhood is a scene where his parents (Jessica Chastain and Brad Pitt) receive the tragic news. Like so much in Terrence Malick’s modern masterpiece, there are no words, just emotions etched on faces and written in the eyes.

Malick takes a brief diversion to the dawn of the universe, before charting evolution through to the arrival of mammals. The Big Bang and the birth of microbes is depicted using the same astonishing Petri dish visual effects that Douglas Trumball used in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Then, from Kubrick’s 2001 we journey into Tarkovsky’s Mirror, as we return to the relative present and focus on the 1960s childhoods of Jack (Hunter McCracken) and his two brothers. Those early years are all about wonder: parents looking at their babies, and babies looking at babies. Always from a childish perspective, both literally and metaphorically, Malick imbues these scenes with almost supernatural mystery. At one point Mother is literally floating.

With its naturalistic acting (the boys, including a young Tye Sheridan, don’t just act like kids but like brothers) and fragments-of-regular-life structure, it’s not immediately clear from where Malick is going draw any conventional drama. But as the years roll on we begin to see the family dynamics change. Father is becoming more aggressive and authoritarian; Mother is being pushed out by the burgeoning alpha-masculine energy in the home.

Malick employs an ingenious and harrowing structure. We know a son will die, but we don’t know which one, or how. It gives everything we see a profound fragility. We won’t witness the tragedy, only the journey toward a family forgiving God. Mother suggests there are two paths through life: nature (which pleases itself) and grace (transcendence through love). It’s a theme depicted visually; we see nature endure as the family negotiates the children’s coming of age.

It is a coming of age story, yes, only concerning the bits you don’t normally see. The sexual confusion of Jack, for example. “What have I started?” he asks himself, overwhelmed by the guilt of his new feelings. The purpose of Malick sharing such small, private moments – rather than, say, a procession of key conflicts – is to instil a sense of intimacy. This in turn gives dramatic events – even unseen ones – real dramatic weight.

During the family scenes there is the sense of the presence of something mightier, more powerful. Underlying everything is the inherent existential anxiety that comes with believing in God but not understanding Him. “Where were you?” is the constant refrain. Malick is not dismissing God, but he is dismissing the concept of God as some benevolent puppeteer. After all, if God were that, then he would also have to be malevolent. When a priest suggests to Mother that her dead son is now in God’s hands, she replies, “He was in God’s hands the whole time.”

Malick is at the pinnacle of his powers as a visual storyteller here. In recent years he may have leaned too heavily into his impulses for nature footage that looks like it’s from Planet Earth, or for landscape shots that could be Windows wallpapers, but here it feels – quite deliberately – like we’re seeing a world through fresh eyes. All the adoring angelic mother stuff, the stroking of curtains and the dancing through grass can be put down to childish wonder.

For all the visual splendour, it’s a classic story of masculinity which is simple and familiar. Father is no brutish stereotype (an unrealised musician, he encourages his children’s interrogation of classical music), but he is the archetypal male: “If you wanna succeed you can’t be too good,” is his advice.  For him, goodbye and goodnight kisses aren’t an expression of affection, but a tool of control and discipline. He struggles to express love, but he’s not hideous enough that Jack doesn’t want more love from him. His rage is a result of his perceived failure as an engineer; and yet his family has everything it needs. A realisation dawns: What’s missing isn’t more money, more security, more things – it’s more love and affection. He may even find his wife’s path of grace.

The Tree of Life is a modern classic, overshadowed only by the work of Malick himself, which is still beautiful but arguably skirting parody at this point. But take the film on its own merits, and take its delicate visuals in their right context; surrender to its lulling rhythm and the profound messages it delivers with such hushed elegance, and it’s impossible to watch unmoved.

Extras:

  • 30-minute documentary from 2011, on the style and process of Malick
  • Interview with Chastain, from 2018
  • Interview with visual effects designer Dan Glass (2018)
  • Discussion with critic Alex Ross about Malick’s classical music choices (2018)
  • Video essay by critic Benjamin B, focusing on cinematography (2018)
  • 2011 video essay made for the Museum of the Moving Image
  • Trailer

The Tree of Life is available on Criterion Blu-ray now.

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