Cannes 2011 Review – The Tree of Life

If you are deeply moved by a film, if you are willing to admit that it touched you personally to the point of getting a lump in your throat and tearing up, should you write a review of it? And if so, where do you begin? I have been thinking about these questions for some time now, because when I walked out of the 8:30 am screening of Terrence Malick's The Tree Of Life on Monday, I was so shaken and emotional that I surprised myself. I am not a professional film critic (this should be abundantly clear from my reviews these past few days), not used to step back a bit and analyze a film from a distance. I can do it, but when I really love something, I'm prone to just ramble like a teenager in love. And I do love The Tree Of Life. A lot. A whole lot. So bear with me.

I am somebody who, more than anything else, enjoys film on a visceral level. Of course not all films lend themselves to that kind of treatment, but I will readily admit that the last time I was truly rocked to the core by a film was with Paul Greengrass's United 93. The first time I saw it was almost a cathartic experience. When I watched Ming-liang Tsai's 2006 film I Don't Want to Sleep Alone, I did not really understand a lot of it (subsequent viewings have remedied this somewhat), but immediately afterward I knew I had just seen something that I would carry with me for a long time. So when the most anticipated film of this year's Cannes fest cut to black, when I felt so angry at the few people who booed that I wanted to punch them in the face, when I walked out of the theatre dazed and confused, I knew this same thing had happened again, and stronger than I have ever felt before.

The next question is: how do you express raw emotions that you don't even fully understand? Let me get this out of the way first: I love me some Malick. There is something lyrical in his filmmaking that has touched me in every one of his films. He is always very much in touch with the nature and subject of his films. He has an incredible visual language, and it was never stronger than in this film. I find it hard to express my emotions in words, but Malick seems to have no problem expressing them in images. The odd thing is, his films are often rife with religious meaning, and while I'm generally interested in world religions and their history, I am a stern atheïst. On the surface I should dislike The Tree Of Life then, for it is a film soaked in biblical imagery and text. But I don't think it is a film about who we are as a religious person per se. It is about who we are as a person, period. It should play just as well to an agnostic as to a Christian or a Muslim. Terrence Malick is clearly a man of faith, but he is also not afraid to question God. Several times in the film, life is created, only to be destroyed at some later point. What would be God's point in doing that?

The film starts with a quote from the Book of Job, "Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth… When the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?" A voice-over tells us that there are two ways in life one can choose, the way of nature and the way of grace. Nature is strong but selfish, always looking out for itself, constantly trying to improve its position. Grace is empathic and will love all equally, be nurturing and forgiving. Two polar opposites almost, and Malick in my interpretation infers God as being a bit of both.

The story follows the O'Brien family, living in a Texas suburb in the 1950s. In the film's opening scene, the mother (Jessica Chastain) gets a telegram, sending her the message of her second son's death in the Vietnam war. After she informs her husband (Brad Pitt), scenes of devastation follow, with nary a line of dialogue, communicating the emotions purely visually. The boy's death will hang over the rest of the film like a black cloud, an impending doom that we already know is coming. This film is about death as much as it is about life, and Malick reflects on the meaning of life throughout the film. Is life futile, and what do you make of it? Which of the two ways do you choose, and what leads you to this choice? Again, why create life to take it away?

Malick then switches from a small canvas to a history of life and death on the biggest canvas imaginable. In an overwhelming twenty-minute sequence, we are taken from the creation of the universe and life itself, via the Big Bang, to the time dinosaurs roamed our planet, all set to soul-piercing choral and orchestral music (a mixture of existing pieces and original work by Alexandre Desplat). In one scene we see a dinosaur come upon another that is wounded. While it could go for the kill, it appears to show empathy and runs off in a display of grace overtaking nature. In yet another breathtaking shot, a meteor hits Earth, and the dinosaurs are wiped out. Malick's recurring question again.

Cut back to the O'Brien family. In a series of sequences that feel most like memory put to screen, we see Mr. and Mrs. O'Brien become a couple and start a family. They literally create life, three times to be exact. We see their boys grow up and discover the wonders of life. They plant a tree in the modest backyard (a rather obvious reference to the titular tree), and the mother muses about how the kids will someday be gone, while the tree will still be there, a musing that we know will all too soon come true. As we see the kids running through the streets of small-town America, we are overcome by the idyllic picture of family life in the 50s: hard-working father, the head of the family, loving housewife mother, healthy all-American kids playing, all in a time when you could still run safely through the streets. However, Malick will slowly pick away at the idealized memory, and the son's death is just the beginning.

The boys get a stern upbringing from their father. He believes a man has to be strong and look out for himself. Always look to improve on himself. Be disciplined. This is nature talking. You can hardly blame him, this is probably the way he was brought up himself, nobody knew any different. But his parenting puts a strain on the relationship with his kids, especially the oldest one, Jack (Hunter McCracken), as well as on his relationship with his wife. The fear of their father is pressing hard on the boys. When he is away on a business trip, the boys brighten up visibly. Even the mother, as the naive opposite of her husband, the representation of grace, joins them in an endearing burst of shots of pure bliss, as if a depressing veil has been lifted.

The way I have laid out the narrative, this all sounds rather conventional. That is definitely not how Malick chooses to present this narrative, though. The story is told through a series of longer and shorter scenes, where we often seem to just drop in, and just as easily drop out. The director recites a tone poem in images, often almost montage-like, displaying memories of childhood in small moments that we can all recognize. The camera is constantly moving, as if it were a living member of the O'Brien household, constantly a part of the love, the joy, the sorrow, the arguments, the growing up, a part of the O'Briens' life. The camera lingers on a garden hose, a sun-filled street, or a moment of affection like a hand on a shoulder. The images are filled with emotional content. Just as with I Don't Want to Sleep Alone, it is not easy to understand or express why some scenes had such an impact on me, but they did, profoundly so.

The focal point then starts to move towards Jack as an adolescent, his relationship with his father, and the turmoils that both bring him. Even though he has a palpable fear of his father, he consciously feels himself growing into his father's image. As a chance for retaliation presents itself, the doubt in Jack is heartfelt. It is a very recognizable situation, as is the whole parent-child depiction. My father was not nearly as strict as Mr. O'Brien, but the film still evoked memories of my own relationship with my father, the feeling of rebelling against your father on the one hand, but loving him on the other. Adolescence is so accurately presented, and the director is completely in tune with his subjects (always a forte of Malick). Jack is wrestling with his feelings for his dad, and finds solace in his relationship with his younger brothers. The love between the brothers runs deep, especially between Jack and R.L., the second O'Brien boy. They share a love that can only be found in a brotherly bond. Because of what we learned in the opening scene, these moments are filled with a bitter sweetness.

The film is bookended by scenes from the life of an adult Jack (Sean Penn, with hardly any dialogue), anguished and weary looking. Here the camera is even more on the move than usual, heightening the feeling of a restless soul. Using an ultra wide lens and large, soulless office buildings, Malick channels an emptiness that is overwhelming. Another critic likened the large open spaces to 'cathedrals of secularity,' a very keen observation. Jack's relationship with his father is still a difficult one, as becomes clear from a phone call. He has become his father in many ways, chosen nature over grace. In what will be surely one of the most talked about sequences, the film ends with Penn walking through a rocky desert, following, almost chasing a woman who seems to be a glimpse of the girl he had his first crush on, shown tenderly realistic earlier in the film through a couple of dialogue-free scenes. The contrast of the young boy experiencing the wonder of first love, and this lost soul in search of love, could not be greater. The final shots show Jack on a sandy beach, surrounded by people who have had an impact on him. His mother is there, as is his brother. This is clearly implied as an afterlife, but Jack's situation is left a bit ambiguous. Does this perhaps imply he killed himself? In the desert shots he steps through a doorway; has he gone from one life to another? Or has he gone from nature to grace, and are these scenes a representation of his emotional state? Food for thought and discussion.

As I tweeted in the height of my emotions right after the screening, the film is a deeply affecting poem about all of us. We may not literally have the same walk of life Jack had, but we recognize much of ourselves in it. At least I did. Never has childhood, those years of growing up and discovering life and the world, been better depicted than in this film, Malick perfectly capturing that feeling. He has a deep understanding of the story he tells, the people he follows, the life he depicts. I don't think he knows the meaning of life, but he clearly knows what living it means.