‘Tree of Life’: Terrence Malick tells the story of everything, in tiny little pieces

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Brad Pitt in Tree of Life. ()
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Terrence Malick's Palme d'Or winning Tree of Life is the story of three young brothers growing up in 1950s Texas, told in flashback from the perspective of one of the grown sons looking back on his childhood from the present day. It is also the story of the beginning of the Universe and the development of our cosmos.

Liquidy light emerges from the black. Simple-celled undulating creatures appear. Lava flows and burns. Dinosaurs emerge and interact. The boys run across the yard in 1950s Texas. A meteor crashes into the earth from space. The grownup son stares at dizzying skyscrapers. Glaciers cover the earth. Different voices whisper in voiceover. It seems they are talking to God, asking Him questions, but at other times it seems they are talking to one another. Maybe it's the same thing.

Malick puts all of this together into an emotional collage intended as a meditation on what it means not only to be alive, but to be a part of the flow of time. It's a bold film, ambitious in its scope, yet also deeply personal. The result is profound, and unlike anything else.

The story, as it is, is relatively standard, and on the face of it you might mistake it for The Great Santini or any other son-coming-to-terms-with-cold-father film. Sean Penn plays Jack, the grown son, who navigates a mirrored world of gleaming skyscrapers, filmed at every conceivable angle to give a sense of their scope and dominance. These images meld into the flashbacks of 1950s Texas, which take up the majority of the film.

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A father and mother (played by Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain) raise 3 small boys in a small clapboard house in the kind of neighborhood where boys roam through the woods in their free time, and mothers hang the washing out on the line, barefoot in their house dresses, while father waters the grass. It is a pastoral upbringing, infused with Malick's nostalgia for lost innocence (one of his themes as a director), and yet the father is very stern, and sometimes rough with the boys, slapping his big hands on their wee shoulders and necks in what seems to be a loving touch but is actually a clamp keeping them in place. The mother spends much of her time in the side yard, playing with the boys, whirling them around in dizzying spins, and admiring the grass and the butterflies. She is childlike herself. She rarely speaks, but her presence is always palpable, and complicated.

But Tree of Life is not interested in diagnosing the family's problems, or putting a label on the relationships. It's not a family therapy session. There are no neatly tied-up ends. How can there be when a prosaic moment of weeding the garden is followed by an image of a vast unpeopled prehistoric landscape belching with active volcanoes?

When the father is home, the boys sit at the dinner table, hunched over, trying to answer his questions in the right way, but never really understanding what it is that sets him off. We learn, eventually, in the languid time-flow of the film, that the father is a man disappointed by life. He has "27 patents" for machines he has invented, but no one will recognize and reward his genius. He is angry at the rich neighbors; they make him feel inadequate.

He plays the piano at home, passionately, lost in the music, and tries to teach the boys what he hears in Toscanini, pointing out what they should be listening for. He reveals to his son that he wanted to be a concert pianist. None of this is played for a maudlin effect. We put him together in our minds, in the same way the boys do. He is rather frightening (Pitt is terrific), but not because he's violent or overtly abusive. He is frightening because he withholds tenderness. When he goes away on a business trip, the mother and three sons tear through the house, screaming and laughing, chasing each other, exhilarated that the somber force who rules over them is absent.

The Texas scenes are filmed in a way that actually makes them feel like memories. They are not presented literally or linearly. We get glimpses and fragments; we see the same images repeating again and again, yet each time they appear they have a deeper resonance. It is as though repetition grounds the memory in the consciousness, just as the grownup Sean Penn continuously goes back in his mind, Proust-like, to the same childhood fragments: his mother whirling in the side yard, her bare feet with blades of grass stuck on them, the arc of water from the sprinkler, the crunch of grass in the yard, like the accumulation of sensory details can help him receive the whole picture of childhood, and of his life.

The scenes with the three boys are revelatory in how the camera captures their unselfconscious behavior. There's one tiny (funny) cliffhanger of a moment when the oldest boy tries to scoop a piece of meatloaf onto his knife without using his finger to push it on, under the watchful, disapproving eye of his father. Small moments of behavior like that take on enormous importance, and stick with us forever. Malick's camera captures it all in a way that never pushes, just presents.

The universe-creation montages are spectacular and odd, with breathtaking images that nevertheless seem strangely familiar. (Haven't we all imagined what the beginning of the universe must have been like?) Sometimes it is hard to know what we are looking at. Our first image in the film is of blackness with a puddle of liquidy golden light that starts to flow and swirl, intensifying. "God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness." There is something biblical about the progression of events, suggesting that there is a force out there guiding everything—the same force that creates the bond of the family, and the same force that people whisper to, in supplication and pleading.

Malick's constantly undulating display of images (I don't think there's one stationary shot) has a cumulative effect. The rhythm of the film is insistent and unique. The cuts that create a juxtaposition of specific images are not meant to ratchet up the tension or keep the audience on edge. It's a flow, and succumbing to it is one of the great pleasures of seeing Tree of Life. It's not so much what he shows us, but how it is all put together, and why he has chosen one image to follow another. We are used to a certain kind of conventional pacing and a certain kind of shot progression. Long shot, medium, closeup, end-scene. None of that is in evidence here, which is not surprising considering Malick's history as an artist, having created such visually arresting films as Badlands, Days of Heaven (who can forget how he presented that prairie?), The Thin Red Line and New World.

There is a fascinating moment in Tree of Life that occurs between two dinosaurs on a riverbank (the animation is extraordinary, with none of the CGI glitter that can make such images alienating and unreal. These beasts appear to be alive). One lies injured, its body heaving up and down with painful breaths. Another dinosaur appears out of the woods and its body language changes when it sees the injured creature.

We have been trained by Land of the Lost and Jurassic Park to think of nature as being only red in tooth and claw so I waited for the slaughter. Instead, the predator dinosaur hops across the river and stares down at the injured dinosaur. It puts its clawed foot out, and rests it on the fallen dinosaur for a moment. Instead of attacking, it then hops down the river, leaving the injured dinosaur by itself. Malick, as he showed in The New World, longs for a time before civilization came along and messed everything up. It's naive, perhaps, but also a compelling fantasy. I love a director who follows his obsessions from film to film.

Grace is a difficult concept to put into words, yet you tend to know it when you see it, or when you feel it, as is more often the case. There is grace in the divine or religious sense, but there is also grace in the physical sense, as in the movements of ballerinas or stallions. Grace is also present in the silent feelings between people—the ties that bind us to each other, however painful or unresolved. Love is transcendent, or at least it can be, and loving another person provides for the possibility of compassion and empathy. It's one of the things that distinguishes the human race.

That is one of the things I thought as I watched the violent creation of the universe, billions of years before any of us showed up. If I had to try to define it, from my own experience, I would say grace is what you find in those brief moments when a sensation flows over you that tells you, "This. Here. Right now. Is perfect." But that's not really a definition, is it? That's the problem with, and the beauty, of grace. Tree of Life isn't about grace so much as it is a pure representation of it.