In The Tree of Life, acclaimed writer-director Terrence Malick (Days of Heaven, 1978; The Thin Red Line, 1998; The New World, 2006) presents a film experience not so much story-centered as it is emotion-centered. Although, each visual does suggest or evoke a certain story or an idea. On one hand, there is a series of images (some, like myself, may call them captured moments) of an American family in Texas in the 1950s. These moments are juxtaposed, on the other hand, with equally-“captured” images of the creation of the universe (a la 2001: A Space Odyssey), as well as images of dinosaurs, nature/naturalism, the modern world, and so many others that evoke feelings and memories.
Jack is the central character, with apparently conflicting influences from his mother (Jessica Chastain) and father (Brad Pitt), respectfully. Upon hearing of the death of his younger brother as the film opens, an older Jack (Sean Penn) recalls his life growing up, including the innocence, angst, confusions, expectations, and self-interests he goes through, similar to the questions we carry as children/young adults into adulthood. On a spiritual level, the film also opens with a passage from the Book of Job (“Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?”), and is referenced throughout the film, such as in a scene at a church service where a priest gives a sermon on how Job, according to scripture, was very godly and knew it was God who gives and takes away. The same goes for the meditative and spiritual snippets of narration from various characters throughout (Young jack, Old Jack, Mother, Father). This also plays into the central theme of what nature expects and what grace doesn’t.
With that in mind, many of these stream-of-consciousness images, once again, poetically suggest something. And the imagery (shot by Emmanuel Lubezki) is thoroughly engaging. One scene shows a room underwater, with a boy emerging through what looks like a cellar door, possibly a parallel of a baby’s emergence from a mother’s womb. A few other moments show a little boy and/or a tall man (father and son?) in a brown, wooden attic with sunlight through the lone window. And there’s the powerful and stunning sequence (titled, “Lacrimosa”) showcasing the creation of the universe and of life, with shots of space, volcanic lava, meteor explosions (one that arguably and strangely looks like the silhouette of a person’s face), and waves from underwater. The ethereal score by composer Alexandre Desplat adds a classical, haunting and beautiful touch.
A few questions several viewers may have (and they will) could include as follows.
1. Memories of Jack’s late brother seem to be coming back to him? Why now, as an adult, when his brother died as a child?
2. The moments where Old Jack is out in some sort of rocky valley. Are these moments representative of his current state of mind? His confusion?
3. Does one particular shot of a sting ray (or of dinosaurs) suggest the birth of consciousness?
4. What of the “tree” in the film’s title? There are many images of trees in this film, including forests.
5. What of the film’s ending?
This film is very experimental and unconventional, and caused a lot of walkouts and outrages during its initial release in 2011. Such criticisms included several “boos” at the Cannes Film Festival that same year, where it won the coveted Palme D’or award (the equivalent to the Best Picture Academy Award). In recent years, however, several critics, including the late Roger Ebert, have declared the film a masterpiece. It stands as an impressionistic achievement, as well as a genuine work of art, on the influences of life, physically, emotionally and spiritually. This is a film that can inspire, influence and challenge moviegoers in terms of how images/pictures can tell a transcending and universal story, much like Man with a Movie Camera (1929), Fantasia (1940), and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) before it.