DVD Review: ‘The Tree of Life’ is a polarizing masterpiece

You always look at nature a little differently after you see a Terrence Malick film. This is a man that you suspect has spent a great deal of time wandering through its various forms, envisioning ways to capture its essence. Of course, all of us outside his friends, family and colleagues can ever do is suspect. Malick creates his films, and then stays out of the spotlight.

The Tree of Life, his latest meditation on nature by way of the Big Bang, won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival this year, and the one who was there promoting it was Brad Pitt. In a way this is fitting since he and Sean Penn are all the marketing team behind this movie will have to promote it with. It’s likely that countless Americans will attend this film to see Pitt and then be outraged.

This wouldn’t be the first time Malick has deliberately deceived audiences with his casting. Those who saw The Thin Red Line were expecting George Clooney and got Jim Caviezel. People expecting Brad Pitt spouting off clever dialogue with sensitive male bravado won’t be prepared for the 15 minute detour into the mysteries of the universe toward the beginning of the movie. Those who have seen 2001: A Space Odyssey will be more at home.

In The Tree of Life, there is “The way of nature and the way of grace,” as Jessica Chastain says in voice-over at the beginning. This saying is Malick’s thesis, one that helps give those seemingly meaningless sequences their purpose. The first one is the way of nature, taking us through the Big Bang, the warring of the volcanoes and the seas, the dinosaurs, and back to the present. Another at the end of the film is a surreal walk toward heaven.

All of the actors in this movie are playing symbols, more so than in any movie in recent memory. Though they are secondary, they all do an extraordinary job injecting their characters with feeling. Jessica Chastain and Hunter McCracken are two newcomers to keep an eye on. The philosophical voice-overs and the utterly pristine imagery still give this mother and son room to work their way into your heart.

You will feel a full spectrum of emotions in this movie, from sorrow to joy and everything in between. This is one of the few movies about life that is actually successful in conveying its entirety because it does not attempt to answer any of life’s questions. Time will tell if critics and audiences accept it as a classic on the level of 2001, but I have a feeling they will.

In Malick’s other work, you can sense a deliberateness at work. The Tree of Life can now make those films seem a bit stifling in that regard. Reports from the editing room say that Malick actually put the final version of the film together there instead of having it all pieced out. This element of spontaneity gives a sense of discovery to it. There’s no telling where it’s going, which is a compliment of the highest order.

The bulk of the movie is set in the 1950s in Texas, where the director grew up. In a way it is a deeply personal film, reflecting not just an auteur’s warring perceptions of creation, but also putting it into the context of his own experiences. There are deeply personal dreams, memories, and theories at work in this film; things that it reflects in every frame of its being. It is about the oldest son’s (and this director’s) inner war with his own nature and grace—his father and mother.

A scene in the O’Brien family’s backyard has father and son planting a small tree while the mother watches on. She tells her son that he will grow up before the tree. That may be true, but as the countless others that he and his brothers climb throughout the movie show, what they have planted will continue to grow and grow for generations.

Grade: A