Tuesday, December 27, 2011
The Tree of Life ****
Cast: Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, Jessica Chastain
Hunter McCracken, Laramie Eppler, Tye Sheridan, Fiona Shaw
They say that before you die, you see your entire life flash by before your eyes. Those who have "come back" tell how in a second, their whole earthly experiences appear in a sequence, as if to remind them of how they did during their time here. Most speak of receiving a taste of heavenly bliss: a certainty that there is much more to life than we think, always has, always will.
Regardless of one's own personal spiritual beliefs, near-death experiences all have one thing in common: they are the closest to creating cinematic moments, that non-filmmakers ever come to.
In The Tree of Life, Terrence Malick has done something even more impressive, he has captured that all-encompassing feeling within a single piece of art. It's not common to have physical reactions to movies but The Tree of Life has the ability to move you, to take you to places you never knew existed within you.
It is the closest cinema has come, in a very long time, to recreating the feeling once conveyed by religious artists, who with a single stroke of the brush, could encompass entire universes.
The film feels more like a visual poem than a movie, with every single cut, every single frame perfectly placed, evoking the cadence and rhythm of verse. Shot with delicate authority by the amazing Emmanuel Lubezki, every scene becomes a play of light and camera movements. The camera, like life on the planet (as we are told in a stunning sequence), never stops moving. It approaches its subjects, it explores its surroundings, it gets so close to them that we think it'll cut right through them, then it ascends towards the skies trying to get nearer to whoever inhabits it.
"That is where god lives", says a mother (Chastain) to her baby, as she points towards the skies. His father (Pitt) meanwhile holds on to him lying on the grass, as if trying to keep him closer to the ground, to earthly existence. It makes sense that when the baby grows up, he has troubled recollections about his upbringing. "Father, mother, always you wrestle inside me, always you will" says the grownup Jack (Penn) as he revisits his memories (or is the whole movie the flash before he dies?). Growing up in Texas, the young Jack and his brothers deal with the different thought currents in their house. Their mother is a sweet woman who urges them to always do good, their father is an authoritative figure who constantly reminds them that in order to succeed you can't be too good.
She takes on the shape of grace, he takes on the shape of nature; both aspects of life then become the center battle in the movie. What will the children choose?
It might be easy to say that Malick has made his choice, after all one of the first lines in the movie tells us that "no one who loves the way of grace ever comes to a bad end", but instead of delivering an obtuse sermon, Malick explores how those who choose grace must live in a world that's so heavily ruled by nature.
The film then works as a harrowing coming-of-age story and as a spiritual exploration of how we got to where we are. As with any piece of art, the film can be approached from endless levels succeeding in addressing each and all.
Besides the obvious Christian undertones that permeate the film, the family dynamics also make for a fascinating take on Freudian theories of castration. What results breathtaking is watching Malick create a synergy between both currents, as we see Jack seemingly overcome his father's brutality but never finding peace with the god he turns into a father figure.
All through the film he wonders how god could go on creating, while he was suffering and we understand that in his narrow world view as a child, he transferred his father's duties to a being he wasn't even sure existed in the first place. The whole movie then plays with the idea of free will as both a burden and a gift.
The only movie that resembles The Tree of Life, in terms of scope and ambition is Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, both of them explore creation, evolution and "what's next", but while Kubrick's work remained on the purely cerebral, Malick's tries to capture what a soul - if they exist - might be like. Does god exist? Does god exist if he makes us suffer? Malick addresses these questions looking for answers. Kubrick explored them with more accusatory tones. Both movies end on a similar note, but only one is able to convey a deep sense of humanity by giving us the power of choice. Malick might just be our greatest living optimist.