The Tree of Life is not a film. It is the product of an artist's imagination on the loose. You cannot just watch it, you experience it’s masterful, maddening power. You can’t dismiss it by calling it pretentious. But you can compliment it by calling it indulgent because it literalises the theory of surrealism as an everlasting dream state. Nobody creates cinematic hypnosis like Terrence Malick, and Tree of Life is his most intense and ambitious film to date.
The film's innovativeness lies in its visual design and complex, shifting tone. Malick’s cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki invents a whole new technique – a sort of ‘Godcam’ - and renders haunting, floating imagery. The camerawork is unlike anything you’ve ever seen on the big screen. The narrative here follows the logic of a bad dream dealing with repressed memories. And Malick preaches to his clan - hardcore fans will hail it as an evocative, difficult masterpiece, and others need not apply. Everyone who dismissed ‘The Thin Red Line’ as tedious will throw up their hands once again. But the rest like me will rise to the challenge of piercing Malick’s layered surrealities. Each frame here is otherworldly, absorbing and transporting in the way only a Malick film can be. You may walk out with a big question mark over your head, you may walk out frustrated and angry, but you will not walk out unaffected.
The Tree Of Life opens with a verse from the Hebrew Bible in which God prompts Job of his creation of the earth and his power over all life on the planet. Cut to a suburban Texas home where the O’Brien couple (Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain) are informed of the death of one of their sons. We then flit to a future where the eldest O’Brien son Jack (Sean Penn), now a successful architect, wakes up on the anniversary of his brother Steve’s death. Jack is clearly disturbed, and we hear whispered voiceovers and illusory scenes as clues to unlock the mystery of the O’Briens’ past. What follows is a brooding, meditative examination of the infirmity of life on earth. The narrative seamlessly shifts from the subconscious to the conscious, and from one universe to another, stressing the need for ordinary life and love. The final segment leaves you with a few questions, but also a whole lot to discuss, dissect and debate long after the melancholy journey reaches an end. What it all means is up to the viewer to decide, and if you can handle unconventional nourishment for your senses and mind, you'll have a profound time piecing everything together.
I am sure that the most attention will be paid to the film’s hallucinatory stretches, but far more important than the surface trickery is The Tree Of Life’s greatest accomplishment – it redirects the focus from the dreamlike imagery to it’s emotional core and it’s characters. Malick scatters the beautiful CGI & special effects with seeming randomness, but makes it clear that what matters are the emotions boiling within the characters. Hunter McCracken, in particular, who plays the younger Jack is impressive – his subtle disintegration is a wonder on par with the events’ transformation. Pitt and Chastain are excellent as well. Sean Penn doesn’t get to do much more than wander helplessly in his own fractured mind. Malick throws in plenty of visual clues and symbolism, even the ideological distinction between Jack and Steve is visual (the dark-haired versus the blond look).
About 20 minutes in, Malick strikes a sharp knife into the profitable heart of Hollywood that has supported him over these years with a sequence involving the creation of the universe. A sense of astonishment gnaws behind your eyeballs as you witness the modern day pinnacle of filmmaking where cosmos shift, volcanoes erupt and dinosaurs walk the earth - all of it juxtaposed to a gut-wrenching operatic score by Alexandre Desplat. It does indeed remind you of Kubrick’s ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’. No matter what you think of this movie, this sequence will get you to stare in awe and reach out for an oxygen mask.
The Tree of Life has an intoxicating narrative groundwork. It is unique, visually lush, and Terrence Malick’s conviction for his self-indulgences, coupled with his extraordinary filmmaking skills make this the best film of the year, and one of the greatest ever made. The question isn’t ‘if’ you want to see it, it is ‘how many times’ you want to see it.