A Cosmic Tour of Life Worth Taking
Terrance Mallick strives to meaningfully explore human life at a cosmic scale in The Tree of Life, not unlike how Stanley Kubrick traversed the vast timeline of human existence in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Following the story of a 1950s family, the narrative revolves around the O’Briens’ struggle to find religious and philosophical answers to the chaos that has disrupted their life (led by brilliant performances from Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain). From the start, Mallick solidifies his film as a love-it-or-hate-it experience—such is the case for all arthouse cinema that contains a sporadic narrative timeline and interjections of natural imagery. Like Kubrick’s experimental opus, Tree could easily be labeled as pretentious—but to blow it off as such would be foolish, as its director has an uncanny ability to portray human life as simultaneously joyful and heartbreaking.
Few directors have crafted an auteurist identity as distinct as Terrance Mallick. His films are instantly recognizable thanks to their unique cinematic style, which involves a perpetually mobile hand-held camera that documents a family’s life from each of its members’ perspective. It’s no wonder that this guy takes so damn long to put out a film—each shot is composed with care and invariably reflects a master’s vision. The narrative focal point bounces around. When restricted to the boys’ point-of-view, Mallick levels the camera with their heads, effectively eliciting childhood recollections from his audience. We often only see the lower half of the adults, and when the camera cranes up with the boys’ upward glances, the grownup figures fill the composition with towering immensity. Through this vicarious experience, Tree reminds us of what it was like to find wonder and amazement in the world, even in simplistic Suburbia.
The film’s tour-esque nature would leave us to expect an emotional alienation. When film narrates an entire lifetime, the audience’s sympathy for the characters is often mitigated by a lack of emotional investment; it’s difficult to connect with them when they are not written into a linear story arc with a distinct conflict. Yet Mallick skillfully achieves an emotional connection with his underdeveloped family members, intimately placing the spectator within their lives with his formal realist visual style, assisted by a soundtrack often overwhelmed with the familiar summer sounds of wind chimes, rustling leaves, and chirping insects. He avoids sentimental indulgence when depicting the family’s struggle to deal with grief. A lingering hope accompanies each member as they seek answers for the tragic drowning of their son and brother, and a doleful longing swells within the spectator not merely from their rare projections of sadness, but in their struggle to find happiness again in life—a life that Mallick continually portrays as beautifully serene.
The director’s love of voice-over poetry is appropriate here and compliments the visuals well, consisting of ambiguous prayers that demand a complex analytical response from the spectator if we wish to unravel the film’s meaning. The film offers no answer to its characters’ dense poetic philosophizing, but a meaningful connection can be made with the life of the family and that of the universe. A mystifying montage photographing nature on Earth and elsewhere hypnotizes the audience into a euphoric state of calm, which is then disrupted by cataclysmic events—an exploding nebula, a volcano, etc. Mallick shows us the illusion of order within the universe first through this natural imagery, then through the lives of the O’Briens. When the victimized boys and their mother subdue their consternation, life often seems heavenly, but it’s thrown into chaos when they externalize their inner turmoil—demonstrated by the boy Jack’s explosive anger when releasing his Oedipal jealousy on his father. On an allegorical level, the theme of latent chaos works well to reconstruct the American Dream during its mid-twentieth century peak in public discourse. The patriarchal physical and emotional abuse inflicted on wives and children is manifested within the victims, where it is subdued and masked from public.
Just like many audiences viewing Kubrick’s 1968 Odyssey, several viewers demanded their money back after failing to grasp The Tree of Life. Their frustration is understandable, since the final scene suspends narrative continuity and depicts a dream-like family reunion where an aging Jack (Sean Penn) reconciles with his kin. I struggled to decode the enigma of this final sequence, concluding that Mallick is clearly communicating that an inexplicable bond is formed by blood, yet I found its surrealist approach rather distracting. Still, there’s a complex, tunneling cave of meaning buried deep within The Tree of Life’s text, and time will tell if it’s one worth excavating again and again.
Rating: 4½ out of 5 stars