In the only five films he has directed over a career spanning almost forty years, Terrence Malick has never shied away from tough celestial and philosophical questions most filmmakers wouldn't even be brave enough to tackle. Over thirty years in the making from initial idea to finished product, "The Tree of Life" dares to explore no less than the wonders of life, the mysteries of death, and the very creation of the universe. It is no doubt Malick's most ambitious motion picture to date, and, regrettably, his most misguided. What possibly went wrong? Did he let too many other people throw their opinions into the pot during the two-year-plus-long editing process? Did he not trust his own vision and the abilities of the audience to stick with him, thus opting before the halfway point to take a sharp turn into more conventional territory? Or, did he simply not have his cacophony of big, expansive ideas worked out prior to filming, and got lost somewhere along the way? Whatever might have occurred during its journey from conception to screen, "The Tree of Life" is as radically uneven and frustrating as film gets. Watching it, one can almost see right when the change occurs, how grand, sweeping, visionary gestures fade around the 45-minute mark and a slim, at times truthful but overall undernourished and familiar family melodrama takes over. It is at this point when Malick loses sight of many of his themes and moves further and further away from the original goal of tying together the scientific history of the world with the mystifying but unavoidable process of living and dying. In the midst of all this is the eternal fight between one's harsh and compassionate natures, and the query of whether or not any of it has meaning. Malick sets his picture up with such beauty, bravery and eloquence that it makes it all the more deflating when he loses his way.
The first act stirs impactfully in one's soul, opening with the grave news that the 19-year-old middle son of a married couple, Mr. O'Brien (Brad Pitt) and Mrs. O'Brien (Jessica Chastain), has been killed. Losing a child is the worst thing imaginable that can happen to parents, and the O'Briens are torn up about it. He is rattled by guilt over always being too hard on the boy and too critical of his actions. Her first instinct is to wish for death herself, just so she might get to be with him again. The trouble is, she's not sure what lies on the other side of living. No one does. In the present day, the middle-aged eldest son of the O'Briens, Jack (Sean Penn), has never been able to kick the haunting memories of his brother's death. A successful but weary architect living in the big city, he is about to be gobbled up by his own hulking, austere creations of glass and metal while gazing out at a place he doesn't really like. "The world's gone to the dogs," Jack says. "Everyone's greedy." As the O'Briens of the past and their offspring in modern times struggle in their own way with the memories and knowledge of what has already happened and cannot be changed, Terrence Malick segues into a galaxy billions of years ago as the very planet begins to take shape. In a stunning patchwork of imagery, Malick attempts to visualize in awesome detail the universe's creation right down to the first atoms. From this comes the many layers of the earth, the ground, the sea, and eventually the initial awakening of life itself. Carefully, wordlessly, and with masterfully confident strokes, the filmmaker has given cinematic fruition to something never before seen in quite this way on film.
The natural expectation is that "The Tree of Life" will continue down this sprawling path, juxtaposing the experiences of the O'Briens with the gradual evolution of the planet until the two somehow meld together in an awe-inspiring meditation on our microscopic imprint within a world that will be here long after we're gone and forgotten. Following a brief prehistoric interlude that, yes, features much-talked-about dinosaurs right before an asteroid hits and renders the species extinct, the narrative introduces the O'Briens in happier times, first as the couple meet, fall in love and marry, and then as they start their family and have three children in fairly quick succession. There is a marvelous part where baby Jack opens his eyes for the first time, a subtle but resounding callback to a previous moment with a different newborn creature. It is around this time, as the boys grow into preteens, that the film alarmingly shifts gears. Malick drops the painstaking recreation of the universe's history, never to return to it, and settles down for about seventy-five minutes to capture a year or two in the lives of the O'Briens. Alternately narrated by the various family members as they speak in abstractly ruminative terms via voiceover, Malick avoids regular dialogue whenever possible and paints his characters (most whom are never called by name) in broad strokes. The time spent with them does not include proper scenes so much as represent a revolving montage encapsulation. Due to this storytelling decision and the steerage away from juggling simultaneous timelines, the film fails to develop the family into three-dimensional people and swaps its loftier original ideas for a familiar, often languid look at suburbia in the 1950s.
No doubt about it, the movie is as ravishingly photographed by Emmanuel Lubezki (2006's "Children of Men
") as any feature that will likely come out this year or next. If one were to take a still image of every second of footage, there is nary a frame that wouldn't be worth hanging on a wall. With that said, its careful and studied mise en scene
do tend to get a little stuffy, frequently lacking the raw grittiness necessary just so Malick can show off another pretty picture. This perfectionistic adherence sucks the deeper emotions and messy unpredictability of one's day-to-day existence from the proceedings and gives the film the feel of a museum piece. Individual moments, like one where an ashamed young Jack (Hunter McCracken) apologizes to brother R.L. (Laramie Eppler) for shooting him with a BB gun, or another where the siblings try to comfort each other when they are about to move away from the house they've always lived in, are sublime. Others, like any of the instances where the hot-tempered Mr. O'Brien blows up at his family, seem overly commonplace. Yes, he takes out his frustrations on his sons and wife because of his own professional unhappiness, but how about saying something that isn't so pat or generalized about these peoples' souls? Jack, R.L. and youngest brother Steve (Tye Sheridan) are virtually interchangeable save for their ages and Jack's increasing defiance, while Mr. O'Brien never grows beyond a man who acts before he thinks, then regrets it later on. As for Mrs. O'Brien, she is an idealized symbol of a long-suffering mother who loves her children and stands by her man even when he does wrong. Little is learned about her otherwise.
There ultimately comes a time when the O'Brien clan must move away for the father's job. The kids are still relatively young, none of them older than thirteen, but this is the last time the whole family is ever glimpsed together. What became of their teenage years? How did the boys' relationship with their parents evolve? How did the lot of them cope several years later following R.L.'s death? What effect did their dad's behavior have on them as adults? Terrence Malick does not disclose what is so important about the limited frame of time that takes up the bulk of the film's length, just as he doesn't reveal why the rest of their lives is so negligible as to hardly ever be seen. It's practically unthinkable that a world-class director like Malick would make something so stodgy yet messy all at once, a film that begins with an intense, all-encompassing scope only to wander down arbitrary avenues in lieu of not following through with its setup. The stark, aching wonderments early on about what death is and how it intermingles with and connects to the miraculous sequence of events that led to our very creation dissipate quickly. It's enough to break a person's heart.
The older Jack shows back up at the end, revealed to simply be a wraparound device since there is no story to tell with him or payoff to provide that satisfies. A last-ditch effort to reclaim the movie's vast themes finally rears its head, however, but it's far too little too late, culminating in a shockingly amateurish, pompously esoteric sequence that reminds of a pretentious, clumsily made student film. "The Tree of Life" so phenomenally outdoes itself early on, providing one example of cinematic transcendence after the next, that its equally erroneous stumble in the conclusion plays like a cruel joke. As for the central chunk with the O'Briens, it literally falls somewhere in between the bookends, rays of luminescence at odds with a confused narrative that doesn't quite locate the crucial connections between itself and the pic's more paramount aims. Performances are passionate, particularly from newcomers Jessica Chastain as Mrs. O'Brien and Hunter McCracken as young Jack, but judging them is almost like critiquing acting from a theatrical trailer since most of their screen time consists of loosely connected shots cut together. For Brad Pitt, he had far superior success with another existential drama, 2008's "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
," which asked of him to create a fully fleshed-out protagonist rather than a sketch. No motion picture about such synchronously penetrating and impenetrable subject matter as life, death and creation has any excuse leaving its audience cold, but that is what "The Tree of Life" devastatingly manages. It's really such a shame, because this could have been one for the record books.