70-word review for the busy: Ever tried to make God a character in your movie? Even harder, ever tried to do it without casting Morgan Freeman? Terrence Malick has. Tree of Life is a dizzying, brilliant, and often tiresome collage of God’s creation, spanning from the dawn of time to the childhood of one boy in Waco, Texas. Malick aspires to solve universal puzzles, leaving viewers to solve the puzzle of what, exactly, they’re watching.
700-word review for the procrastinators:
How can a human being conceive of God?
Equivalently, what the hell is Tree of Life about?
The film, written and directed by Terrence Malick, has no plot, defies chronology, and goes for long stretches without dialogue. Two stories – one boy’s coming of age, and the creation of the Earth – appear interspersed. Waves break. Deserts form. Sean Penn treads barefoot over rocky landscapes, as he is wont to do. And, with narrative convention lying shattered in the aisles, two out of the ten people at my screening gave up and went home long before the closing credits. I pity and envy them. What they ditched was a movie of rare ambition and enormous pretension, a movie that I can describe only by piling on metaphors: a constellation of whispers, a necklace of prayers, a garden of visions whose roots all intertwine.
More simply, Tree of Life is a weird, slow movie that I can’t stop thinking about. It reminds me of my first meal in a fancy restaurant: The food is fascinating, and I have no idea whether it tastes good.
Tree of Life depicts a family in 1950s suburbia. The father (Brad Pitt) is volatile and proud. He scolds his sons, then embraces them, then interrupts them to insist that they never interrupt. The mother (Jessica Chastain) is warm and playful, slipping ice cubes down the boys’ shirts to wake them one morning. We spend most of the film watching eldest son Jack grow up, as he wrestles, throws stones, suffers his father’s advice, rebels against his father’s hypocrisy, and eventually becomes an architect (Sean Penn, in a handful of scenes), adrift, estranged from the world. But while that may be what the movie depicts, it’s not what the movie is about. Not even close.
Instead, from the opening quotation from the Book of Job to the closing image of a fiery wisp in the blackness, Tree of Life is about nothing less than the holiness of existence.
Every scene is a search for God. We hear voice-overs of characters’ prayers. The camera keeps panning upwards, towards the sky, as if straining to get God into the shot. Framing life as a choice between struggle (“Nature”) and acceptance (“Grace”), Malick lets his characters ask cosmic questions. Does God punish the wicked? Why would He let a child die? Are human lives so puny that our joys and miseries vanish like infinitesimal terms in the great heavenly equation? As Jessica Chastain whispers to God in one voiceover, “What must we look like to you?”
In response, Malick offers a guided tour of the Earth’s history – the most glorious and most nap-inducing sequence in the film. As classical music cascades and swells, we visit the planet as it was five billion years ago, a fiery orb, pelted with meteors, throwing volcanic tantrums of acid and ash. Then we see oceans form, and water droplets merge, as the film cuts back and forth between the miniscule and the monumental, until we can’t tell crumb from continent. God’s eyes, it seems, do not see scale as we do. The first RNA strands, spiraling through a prehistoric ocean, appear massive; a galaxy appears tiny. The camera lingers over an herbivorous dinosaur, who munches leaves, splashes across a shallow stream, and then, in the most suspenseful moment in the movie, is spared by a predator as it lies wounded on a riverbank. The dinosaur drama suggests that the planet held fears before human fears, and souls before human souls. Then a rock strikes water, and ripples spread outward, except that the water is an ocean, and the ripples are tsunamis, and the rock is the asteroid that kills the dinosaurs. Then suns rise and set, and trees spread their roots, and children are born, and grow old, and die, and finally we meander our way back to the family in ‘50s suburbia that, if you recall, got us started on this whole damn celestial expedition. I’d estimate that the sequence takes 20 minutes, because that length sounds simultaneously far too long and far too short.
This is free-verse filmmaking. Whereas most films obey a certain narrative grammar – first we meet the characters, then a conflict arises, and so on – Tree of Life dances from one poetic observation to the next. Dialogue subsides into mumbles, just another thread in the film’s strange tapestry. The camera follows one character’s stream of consciousness, then the next character’s, then the next, until they all flow and converge like tributaries into something resembling God’s own stream of consciousness. All of which is to say: I still don’t know if the family had two sons or three, but hey, there were some really lovely moments.
Tree of Life is incoherent in the literal sense: Instead of cohering together, it drifts apart like vapor. As with some dreams I’ve had, I’m convinced that certain bits mean nothing, and others reveal deep and dazzling truths. I just can’t tell which parts are which. I’m sure that a second screening would reveal a hundred subtle moments and oblique insights that I missed the first time around, but I’m equally sure that a second screening would put me fast to sleep.
One night in college, two of my roommates went to see a one-man play narrated by a wheezing, paranoid antihero. In a newspaper interview, the director had boasted that he hoped to lose half the audience at intermission. One roommate came back rolling his eyes the next day: “It was just a guy with a nasal voice coughing into a microphone.” My other roommate – a level-headed Midwesterner, a fan of hip-hop and college sports, not the stereotypical defender of the avant garde – loved it.
We don’t hand-select our opinions on art. We react. We are moved – to reverie, or disgust, or boredom, or admiration – in ways we cannot control.
In the eight months since Tree of Life debuted, reviews have been written, battles fought, awards handed down. In May, the first screenings at the Cannes Film Festival drew a combative mix of jeers and ovations. In June, a theater in Connecticut posted a sign scolding those who would dare ask for a refund. In August, Sean Penn confessed that even he doesn’t understand the very scenes he appears in. And in January, Tree of Life earned a surprise Oscar nomination for Best Picture, a prize that even the film’s fiercest advocates admit it has no chance of winning. I’m coming late to this little culture war, although you could argue that I chose my side one day this summer, when I passed up Tree of Life in favor of Friends with Benefits. (I make no apologies.) The fact is, I don’t know which side I belong to. Malick offers a clear-cut choice between the beauty of Grace and the hubris of Nature. But as I watch Malick’s vision unfold, I struggle to tease the beauty and the hubris apart.
So here, then, is my reaction to Tree of Life, my reflex that I cannot control: puzzlement, fixation, and a thousand strong opinions that do not cohere any more than the film itself does. I loved Tree of Life, and hated Tree of Life, and may never know whether I liked Tree of Life.