“Art is the Tree of Life,” William Blake once wrote. “Science is the Tree of Death.” That’s an extreme statement, of course, but it illustrates that Blake was a humanist who valued art and artistic expression above all else.
Terrence Malick apparently feels the same way. In his much ballyhooed film “The Tree of Life” (which was both booed and cheered when it played at the Cannes Film Festival), Malick relies more on images and collage-style narrative moments than on story, and he tries the unthinkable: to tell of a simple Texas family in the greater context of the universe, from a spiritual as well as scientific perspective. Like Rod McKuen poems from the ‘60s, this approach is bound to polarize audiences. Either people are going to think it profound and cosmic, or they’re going to think it stupid and pretentious.
DVD Town’s Christopher Long thought it was cosmic. In awarding it a perfect 10 in his theatrical review, he wrote, “I love this film. I love every second of it. And more.” He explained, “‘The Tree of Life’ has come to mean so much to me that I even find it hurtful to read criticisms of it, as if it’s a personal rejection (of a way of seeing, of understanding) rather than just a movie critique.”
You might not want to read on, then, Chris. I’ll admit that “The Tree of Life” has both artistry and weight. It feels substantial, and the non-linear narrative invites you to consider meaning every bit as much as the images and visual moments that drive the film. But while I can appreciate Malick’s ambitiousness and bravery in trying to achieve something greater than a simple narrative–something that shows the weight of existence beyond the actions and thoughts that films usually depict–I also felt that “The Tree of Life” was ultimately faux philosophical. When the end credits began to roll, I found myself thinking that Malick didn’t really say as much as I thought he could have, beyond implying that there is a god or life force and that people who die don’t just rot in the ground. But if you consider the heavy-handed opening segment in which we’re told there are two paths–the way of grace, and the way of nature–you are left wondering whether the path matters, given a scene that shows everyone getting together in what some might interpret as “heaven.” There’s the father’s way and the mother’s way in this story, and two of their three boys gravitate more toward one than the other. But it’s not that simple.
Like James Michener, whose novels painted a broad picture of a place across time and geophysical and cultural changes, “The Tree of Life” includes numerous scenes that imply a cosmos or life force, along with shots that show the breadth of life . . . going all the way back to the dinosaurs. Really. As you’re watching this tale of a bad-seed kid, the brother he tormented, and the father who traveled so much that he was as removed from them as Paleolithic Man, there’s a segue to a scene that actually shows dinosaurs. And it goes on so long you almost expect Richard Attenborough to chime in with a voiceover, as he did for the “Blue Planet” series. Malick’s sequence has the same feel to it. The cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki creates the same sort of austere yet awe-struck view of the world’s natural wonders . . . and man-made ones as well.
Also on the plus side, I’m glad that after the overly obvious two-path opening Malick managed to avoid a simple fable format and created something far more complex. “The Tree of Life” held my interest throughout, but mostly because of the young actors. I found myself captivated by the “bad” son and the relationship he had with his compliant brother–an adult look at childhood dynamics that reminded me, in some ways, of “Stand by Me.” You wonder what each was learning about the other, about themselves, about life, in such episodes as when Jack tells his brother to hold his finger over the barrel of a BB-gun and pulls the trigger, hurting him. It’s like the game of trust, only when the person who falls backward trusting you’ll catch them suddenly falls splat on the floor. Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain, and Sean Penn get top billing as the mother and father and errant son-as-adult, but it’s Hunter McCracken as bad-seed Jack and Laramie Eppler as his long-suffering little brother who are the most interesting characters.
The film, largely a flashback, gets its structure in the opening moments when the mother reacts to a telegram telling her that one of her three boys has been killed. Her reaction and bad-seed-bro’s reflection as an adult living in a comparatively sterile world of high-rise buildings and high pressure basically hold together what otherwise would be an album full of vignettes of family life in Texas in the 1940s. But, of course, the “cosmic” elements imply that the O’Brien family is just a microcosmic example of families everywhere across time and space trying to wrestle with questions like the meaning of life–especially when life gets personal and hits you below the belt. There are impressionistic scenes as well that invite you to consider moments of life in the womb and beyond life on earth, and ultimately that’s how Malick’s film will be judged . . . by how well it manages to go “cosmic.”
At times, “The Tree of Life” has a New Age look to it, like “Koyaanisqatsi,” and it’s during those moments when we can appreciate how stunning it looks in high definition. The AVC/MPEG-4 transfer to a 50GB disc leaves nothing to be desired. Colors are natural looking in the sepia-toned Texas scenes and “Blue Planet” pristine in the more expansive shots. Edge delineation and detail are strong in all sequences, and yet there’s still a very slight touch of film grain to give it texture. “The Tree of Life” is presented in 1.85:1 widescreen.
“The Tree of Life” is a sonic marvel as well, with a flawless English DTS-HD MA 7.1 spreading the sound convincingly across the speakers to create a dynamic audio experience. The bass, like the film itself, has heft and presence, but all ranges of sound and all modes–music, ambient noise, dialogue–are well represented here. An additional audio option is Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround, with subtitles in English SDH and Spanish.
Surprisingly, this cupboard is nearly bare. All we get is “Exploring the Tree of life,” a 30-minute pretty standard making-of feature that rounds up the usual suspects (cast, filmmakers, designers, etc.) and covers the usual bases (concept art, casting, etc. Malick is MIA again, preferring to let his film do the talking. The only other bonus features are a DVD and Digital Copy of the film.
While I wasn’t bowled over the way Chris was–or the way voters at Cannes who awarded it the Palme D’Or apparently were–I still found “The Tree of Life” to be a rich film that sets lofty goals for itself, and doesn’t fall short by much.