Malick expects a lot from his audience, and it might not all get repaid. Depending on your mood, you’ll think it’s all pretentious, boring crap, with a bunch of Discovery Channel sequences thrown in, or you’ll come out of a spiritual experience, moving, disturbing, evolving.
Practically devoid of actual dialogue, the structure of Tree of Life can best be approached from the view of how memory works, triggered here by a tragic event, a stream-of-consciousness review of a boy’s childhood in a small town in 1960s Texas.
Three boys who roam the streets and streams, are utterly free while unattended by adults (an experience enjoyed by few kids today), under the dictatorial rule of the religious father, at dinnertime. Mr. O’Brien (Pitt) is a kind of Willy Loman, trying to sell his inventions and never succeeding, yet never giving up the deeply engrained ideals of the American Dream. His wife (Chastain) is almost translucent, hardly ever says a word, and it’s difficult to know for the most part whether she’s even suffering under her husband’s iron rule or whether she’s removed herself so far as to not notice it. There are few moments when things get physical, and even a possible hint at an abusive relationship between father and sons, but nothing is ever really concrete enough to pin down any emotion.
As is responding to the no-linear structure of this childhood memory, the man who’s remembering it (Penn) has become an architect, imposing his own, impressive structure on the world. The Tree of Life attempts in a philosophical way what architecture does in a much more concrete form – to establish the position of man in the universe.
Young Jack’s experiences as a boy point at what Malick is most concerned with – man’s reaction to absolutist rule – but Malick is after even bigger things, going back to pre-history, evolution, shuttling between the microcosm of the elements and the vast expanses of the universe in long, wordless scenes that do for 21st century cinema what 2001: A Space Odyssey did for the 20th century.
Perhaps Malick is trying to do too much; in fact, he seems to be trying to do everything. But it’s better to try and fail in parts than to not try at all. And certainly the reflections on childhood – and specifically boyhood – are incredibly subtle and poetic.
TREE OF LIFE | Directed by Terrence Malick (USA 2010) with Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, Jessica Chastain. Opens June 16