THE TREE OF LIFE (Terrence Malick)
* may or may not contain spoilers.
THE TREE OF LIFE is filmmaker Terrence Malick at his most meditational. His previous films THE THIN RED LINE (which is a war film, mind you!) and THE NEW WORLD both showcased the filmmaker's penchant for introspection. We hear the thoughts of his characters out loud.
His latest outing, which may as well be his magnum opus features a story of life and death, a comparative analysis of binary opposites that is neither confrontational nor shallow. A typical suburban couple, the O'Brien's (Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain) learns that their 19-year old son suddenly dies, and this devastates both of them.
Fast forward to a later time. Jack O' Brien (Sean Penn) is seen in an urban city, in a high rise corporate building. He is adrift in his thoughts, and we get some dwellings on the past.
A story of creation told in eye-popping sight and sound follows. Planets rise, volcanoes erupt, organisms evolve, and life is created.
The O'Brien's experience the joy of their first-born. We see Mr. O'Brien as he teaches his son to walk, and to be strong among other things. Soon, the couple has two more children, and we see how sibling rivalry emerge, and how the parents handle their everyday life as they go through a series of stages.
Death is a recurring theme in the movie, quite possibly in an attempt to make us realize how mysterious and how joyful life is. As their firstborn emerges, there is something magical and delightful in the way Mr. O'Brien holds his eldest in his arms. There is a spark in Brad Pitt's eyes you can almost relate to as if you have instantly become the father of your firstborn. The lighting itself, which is blindingly white signifies that luminous moment where your joy almost cannot be contained.
For me, you cannot fully appreciate life unless you have a grasp of the beauty of creation, and the inevitability of its vice versa, which is death.
We see the kids grow up. Their father is brute, but also tender. Their mother is the archetypal caring and empathetic matriarch. The story seemingly centers on the eldest son, and how he experiences the deal of growing up. Indeed, Malick chose to focus on adolescence, that certain part of growing up where everything is at its most crucial. It being the age of self-discovery, adolescence is also a good area to explore when you're pondering on existential questions. Hence, the older Sean Penn character.
Chastain is marvelous. She exerts emotions when she needs to without overdoing it. She can convey restrained rage like I've never seen before.
Pitt himself is compelling as a patriarch balancing discipline and affection for his sons.
The musings, which sprawl all over the film, most especially during the visual fireworks, are thought-provoking, some of them gut-wrenching, and some of them in low modulation you barely heard what the characters said.
Malick chose his shots carefully. You rarely get a picture of the whole family in one frame. This I think may show Malick's emphasis in an incomplete picture, like there's something missing in the family. And fittingly so, because there's always missing in one's existence, otherwise life would get irreversibly useless. In fact, the characters desires and aspirations are what propelled them forward.
In numerous occasions, the camera catches Brad Pitt's left hand with his wedding ring in it, which I believe symbolizes his dedication to his family. The emphasis is so obvious you cannot ignore the shots.
In the semi-closing scene, where the O'Brien's leave their home to move into another place, there is a somber atnosphere, almost death-like, preceded by the two boys crying about something. So that's what it was, I concluded after seeing the scene where they abandon their abode. Like I said, the emphasis on death is so thick you could touch it.
The music of THE TREE OF LIFE ranges from ethereal to operatic. Ethereal makes you feel at peace, while opera, in which majority of the world's population do not understand a single word of it unearths feelings of depression and grief.
What the final frames of THE TREE OF LIFE meant I'm still not sure. Sean Penn sees his family in their younger versions, with a multitude of people in a placid beach and before that, he chases a woman and his younger self in a place that closely resembles the ruins. Meanwhile Mrs. O'Brien offers her son completely to the heavens. And then there's visual images of a ladder, an open door, and sunflowers. So there goes the cerebral rape.
The debate now, similar to INCEPTION's "is it real or imagined" trick question in the end, is "does it have a plot or not"? I think it does. Sure it is an audiovisual experience, like a lights and sound installation, but Malick is obviously on to something, showing us images of life and death, and having a family as his storyteller, serving as the ones questioning existence. What I'm amazed also, aside from the images, the sound, the story, and the acting, is the marriage of science and religion. Rarely do films achieve that being. The Jodie Foster-starrer CONTACT, based on the book by Carl Sagan suddenly comes into mind. That awe in the end where your mouth (and your brain!) just stays wide open? It happens here in THE TREE OF LIFE, and much more. It's that kind of film you cannot shake out of your consciousness for months.