Full Disclosure: Its taken me years to watch Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life (2011). I first received a clear bootleg copy of it (don’t judge me!) which I watched for about a half hour, became distracted and didn’t go back. Months later my boss at work loaned me his copy of The Tree of Life after I got a blu-ray player. I kept his disc an uncomfortable couple of weeks without ever watching it, then returned it thinking: Someday, someday. Finally, after it coming up in conversation again last week, he loaned me blu-rays of Malick’s The Thin Red Line and Tree of Life (“I think I gave this to you before”) and I thought—This time for sure!
The film’s lofty aim is to consider the entirety of human existence through the focal point of one family in Texas in the 1950’s. It languidly meanders from the present day with Jack (Played as an adult by Sean Penn and by Hunter McCracken in adolescence) and tracks his childhood memories, both good and bad. After news of a death in his family, Jack begins reflecting on his childhood, his relationship with his puritanical father (Brad Pitt), and you know, the meaning of life. We watch adult Jack float through well lit rooms in his office, run along sand dunes on the beach and allow his thoughts to loop back to his childhood in Texas, his luminescent mother (Jessica Chastain), his precocious brothers and endless summer afternoons at play.
If Malick had his way, he’d cuddle next to you on a beach camping trip and whisper poetry in your ear while you listen to the wilderness and watch grass wave in the wind. He might ask: What connects everything around you to yourself and the experience of your own heart? For him, movies are the intersection of every art form—poetry for dialogue, actors theatrically staged, languid and dreamy cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki. What story there is is unhurried and metaphorical. It’s the story of life and memory. It’s a film that believes in God even as it doesn’t explicitly name Him. The film has the precise, unmoored texture of memory. It shifts and meanders, mixing time and its elements. Scenes of compassionate dinosaurs are intercut with a mother hanging laundry or kids mimicking the walk of a polio victim. Jack’s family, as all families, is not perfect. Brad Pitt is a bullying and strict father. The angelic Chastain meanwhile is his nurturing opposite, practically defying gravity.
The films whispered poetic voice over at one point openly asks God “Why?” and Malick pans over to outer space as if to await God’s answer. Can any of us find a clear why—for the meaning of life or even the random certainty of death—anywhere in the physical universe? Does God exist in space or within us?
The Tree of Life is a museum piece as a film, a prayer even. And it most certainly made me think. It feels at times like an advertisement for life. What babies might be shown in Heaven before birth. I wondered if Malick ever bought the rights to Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass in order to turn it into a film. Only he could turn a volume of poetry in to a movie. I wondered what The Tree Of Life’s screenplay looked like: probably handwritten notes with stage directions in iambic pentameter.
Here’s the thing. The Tree Of Life is an fancy espresso of a movie; almost too rich and frothy. Even a brief shot of neighborhood kids gleefully playing in the fog banks of a truck spraying DDT looks gorgeous and inviting. The films’ ambition is to reflect all of humanity through the experiences of one man and his life’s memory. I should cut this sentence, but here it is: We as audience are the tree: our roots drawing energy from all of earth and time, our branches and leaves equal experiences and memory.
But there’s no diversity in this tree. Its an insulated, factory sealed life review, not free of death or dinosaurs, but certainly free from people of color, diverse sexualities and beyond the matronly Chastain, women. Malick might whisper to me: That’s not the point. The films staged memories want to intermingle and converse with all its prospective audiences memories. It does. Yet, when I as a viewer attempt to project my own experiences alongside the glossy magazine spreads of Malick’s scenes, I see my brother-less, lonely childhood, my aloof and distant father. There were fruit trees, plastic dinosaurs, bodies of water hopping with fish, fingers reaching if only for a touch. But nothing so luminous as Malick conjures. The Tree of Life is one of Malick’s achingly gorgeous masterpieces and it put me sound asleep.