Something about watching the films of Terrence Malick always puts me into a trance-like state, beyond the beautiful imagery present in his work to the philosophical outlook his films present on American life – with these qualities being most distinctive in his body of work, but The Tree of Life has always been another case scenario for myself. It clearly rings on all count that this is Terrence Malick at his most personal and also at some of his most thoughtful. It’s not unfamiliar for Terrence Malick to retain such traits all throughout his filmography for even those small traces were present in his early films but The Tree of Life presents yet another case scenario because it feels like everything that Malick had so subtly been building up in his filmography had finally found its own place here. You would only be repeating what is obvious if you were to say that The Tree of Life is a beautiful film because such imagery isn’t unfamiliar to the work of Terrence Malick, but here it creates a whole new aura – one that builds up to something of a greater scope. And the more it goes on, the more it keeps building – and the results are extraordinary.
The Tree of Life isn’t completely narrated by a story in the traditional sense, because the first image we see is one of space – but that is right before we head on over to the smaller wonders of ordinary life. This is the story of the O’Brien family, which looks as if it is any other family, with a mother (Jessica Chastain) and a father (Brad Pitt). But soon we get a glimpse of the life of one of the children, now as an adult (Sean Penn), and soon we are brought into another journey as is, one that goes beyond the boundaries of human life and even stretches itself within the realm of space and time. It’s this very experimental nature to The Tree of Life that will not guarantee a success with all audiences, but in looking at what makes it so successful, it feels almost impossible to grasp that perspective – because it feels almost like Malick trying to communicate with his own faith, where it has led him all his life, and where it will continue to move him as time goes on, perhaps even after his own time on earth has passed by.
The meandering structure of The Tree of Life is not one that is guaranteed to sit well with all audiences, but in telling this story, it just works perfectly. In the moments where we observe the life of the O’Brien family, Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography still carries a distinctively meditative feeling. It’s a highly meditative experience that Terrence Malick brings you into, but among many more reasons I absolutely love every bit of it stem beyond this. As par for the course of a Terrence Malick film, the cinematography is just as beautiful as ever, but it’s his fixation on nature that also adds something more mystical to what it is that we’re seeing on the screen. Easy enough to say, it’s a film made to tell a story all about the very beauty that makes the world what it is, but there’s a whole lot more that Terrence Malick seeks to capture within the moment, because of how personal a journey like this feels for him. It’s a film that wanders all around some of the most beautiful images as we seek for what it is that we define as being heaven, but at the same time it also ruminates upon whether or not it is here on earth already.
Perhaps most notable about The Tree of Life and its wandering through nature is the manner in which it even explores the way in which this feeling of grace spans eons even before humanity. Malick keeps his ideas running so clear, as sparse as they can sound – yet there’s still a clear connection that he establishes that forms an entirely meditative experience. From the usage of classic music to the usage of natural lighting, there’s already something heavenly that Malick seeks to capture just from a life that seems so ordinary – but perhaps what sounded so ordinary is also a gateway to that peace we seek most in our lives. In the eyes of Terrence Malick, Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien are not shown to us just as an ordinary mother and father to the young Jack and his brother. There’s something magical about the way in which their voices permeate the imagery, because it’s all made to sound so mystical – like a flashback that sticks inside your head. But in that sense, it even brings me back to memories of my own childhood, those that I thought I have repressed – I ask myself why do I still latch onto them. Over the years, it came clear to me, like I imagine it would have for Malick.
Sometimes, I ask myself what I’ve done to deserve to have held such a sense of grace in my life. Whether it be from around my own family, my friends, or even myself. I keep thinking of that one moment in the film in which a dinosaur shows up, clearly of a carnivorous species, as it chooses to leave behind the herbivore, whom is lying down on the ground. When I think of this sequence, I picture myself as that dinosaur on the ground. I picture myself only looking back even in my own greatest achievements in shame, knowing that they will be rendered insignificant by everything that hinders the way I move through life. But I never get an answer to that, no matter how hard I search. Not even through the cinema, which I have always viewed as perhaps the greatest pleasure my life has ever presented onto myself, a place where I sit down to escape reality by in a sense living that of another. I wonder how much of what it is that I’ve already achieved has truly been worth it – even to that point I could have asked the other dinosaur to eat me up, and finally put me out of my own misery.
But I keep sitting there, thinking I’ll get an answer. Where Malick has already found his own heaven, I still look for my own – yet I see Malick still trying to explore that very concept. Is there still something more peaceful than our own heavens as we see them to be? During my own youth, I was raised Catholic, even baptized for the matter, yet over the years I feel I cannot bring myself to commit to religious practice anymore. I sit around, even questioning what is the significance that all of these teachings have really brought into my life, as much as I have also become so disillusioned with them over the years. Was there some great reward waiting for me at some point, one that I don’t know I’ll ever realize I am capable of achieving? On a night where I can’t sleep, I find that this is still something that haunts me – no matter how much I try to suppress it, there’s something else I find myself realizing about what else I’d been given. I just wonder if there’s something waiting for me after my own time on earth comes to its own end. But all my life has been spent doubting that too, maybe I’m not looking in the right places for the answers I most desperately seek – and watching The Tree of Life helps me come closer to that sense of peace I even doubt is existent.
Watching The Tree of Life places me in a sort of mood that I don’t know how to describe, but at the same time I find that I’m still learning a little more about myself every time I come back. But watching how Malick explores that concept through the O’Brien family tree only leaves me thinking all about what’s set to come for me, and even in moments where I’m doubting that anything positive comes my way – I’ve recognized it as feeling therapeutic for myself. Yet even though it never presents itself in an overtly philosophical manner, it still feels meditative enough to that point where you find yourself seeing the world around yourself another way. Evil still finds a way to intrude life, perhaps it’s an inherent cause at that, yet it’s all a part of a cycle too. In the greatest beauties come tragedies too, but fittingly enough, these are the building blocks that allow life to become exactly what it is. I don’t even know how a movie like this even came to be, or was even conceptualized for the matter, but for all I know, I’ll forever remain thankful that it exists.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via Fox Searchlight.
Directed by Terrence Malick
Screenplay by Terrence Malick
Produced by Sarah Green, Bill Pohlad, Brad Pitt, Dede Gardner, Grant Hill
Starring Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain, Sean Penn
Release Date: May 27, 2011
Running Time: 139 minutes