More of an analysis than a review. My first analysis on the film as well.
I originally saw this film back in May. I left a few knee jerk reactions on a few different web sites, but I never wrote a full length review on what I thought about this piece of work. The reason for this is because the film had such a profound effect on me. I could not shake it; I could not organize my thoughts into a coherent fashion. That is, of course, until now. Let me get the obvious out of the way first and foremost. The Tree of Life is a masterpiece. There are few movies where the ambition and passion match the talent and The Tree of Life is one of them. Andrei Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev is another. So are Max Ophuls’ The Earrings of Madame De… and Orson Welles’ Chimes at Midnight. But this is beside the point. The Tree of Life is a meditation on life, the universe, and the human consciousness that struggles so hard to understand it all. It’s a film that encompasses all that surrounds us while attempting to explain the process as to why we ask these questions. There are not many directors who dive into subjects they can’t truly comprehend for themselves. Malick bears all that he knows and feels about life and the universe into this movie. This is a work of true passion.
With that out of the way, I want to address some thoughts and feelings on the film. Unlike other films, The Tree of Life is near impossible to write an analysis on because it’s more so a movie you have to experience. The words in this review can only scratch at the surface of the emotional involvement one will have with the film if they are patient and willing to allow themselves be swallowed.
One thing I’ve noticed about most reviews on the film is lack of thought on the cinematography. Sure, Malick has always known for his beautiful imagery and his impeccable sense of composition. However, there’s something that’s more striking here than his other films. At times, I felt the camera was a spirit that was following the family. The best example I can think of is in the beginning of the film with the shot inside the family home. Mrs. Obrien is inside the house, looking through her mail. The camera swiftly follows her – when she looks down at her mail, the camera looks down at the mail. When she walks, the camera shakes ever so gracefully. Malick never does the shaky camera in-the-trenches war documentary thing. The camera floats, as if it’s a spirit that’s watching over the family. I’d like to believe that the spirit is actually Malick himself, reflecting on past memories, racking his brain on what exactly happened within this family. Of course, this could be tied back to the framing device Malick gives the film – an older Jack O’Brien, played by Sean Penn, is seen drifting through the concrete jungle of the business world, disconnected from life. His portions of the film almost play like a silent film. The camera in these scenes is a bit more rigid, a bit plainer, which makes me consider the notion of the interpretation that the film’s segments about the family are actually Jack’s memories and that supposed spirit I thought is actually Jack searching through his own memories in his mind. However, we also get a clearer flashback cue when Mrs. Obrien questions God in the beginning. I must digress because the film is too far complex to write a broad criticism about. Later on in the film, during the family “movement” (if you will, let’s consider this film as an orchestra piece instead of a story), the camera again has this light feeling as it captures the children within the film growing up. It’s through this movement that the film develops the family dynamic and captures the process of growing up better than any film in recent memory. The scene that sticks with me the most is the consciousness of a baby realizing that there’s another child in their midst. This scene shows the birth of sibling rivalry; the boy cautiously approaches his newborn brother, unsure, unaware, frightened, intimidated. It’s moments like these that not only establishes character better than most films about children, but give a universal truth, a voice to a feeling that we with siblings have always felt, but never remember when it came about. Character development is never about dialogue and it shouldn’t be even about action, but reaction. The camera breathes an organic life to the film by making us feel like a child and remembering our experiences as a child. A few instances; we never learn the first names of the parents, most of the shots, if not all, never have the camera looking down on the parents, and my favorite example is the shot that goes along with the following dialogue, “You will grow before that tree is tall.” It’s a shot that instantly reminded me of my childhood – from the child’s POV up to his mother. His mother is looking down on him as if she’s the great teacher of life.
The relationship between the parents and the children in this film is another difficult quality to grasp. I’ve seen a few criticisms across the internet that claims that the mother is a fairly one dimensional figure. Yes and no. There’s a certain level of holiness Malick imbues in the mother which lacks in the father character. Mrs. Obrien represents grace and Mr. Obrien represents nature. Through Jack’s eyes, we see grace as an encompassing love of life, whereas nature is a tough love that’s consistently conscious about how hard life is. Jack feels a certain love for his mother over his father because she treats him better; she isn’t someone he feels he has to win over. With his father, he feels that he has to earn his love, but even when he tries earning it, he can’t achieve it. He comments on how his father does things in life that he would punish his son for doing. He struggles with understanding why his father doesn’t love him, why he doesn’t favor him as much as his other brother. Then he begins a rivalry with him, saying that he can raise his brother better than he can. This leads to a fateful moment in the woods where he realizes that he is his father’s son and that he’s more like him than he wanted to be. As a man, I want to avoid the mistakes my father made. I believe that I can improve on the things he lacked in. In the end, Jack and us, realize that Mr. Obrien is a human being. Like all of us, Mr. and Mrs. Obrien (or our parents) aren’t some deities sent from God to teach us how to live life, but just ordinary people trying to get by.
The semi-controversial “creation” segment of the film is an organic exploration of the beginnings of the universe. The main reason I love and appreciate this sequence is because it proves this idea that I’ve always had. At this very moment, I’m writing a review. I’m eating a cracker. The big bang, the universe being created, life forms making a big evolutionary jump into full human consciousness, empires rising and falling, wars fought, all of the world’s history – it has led to this moment of me crunching on a cracker. And this is exactly what the creation segment is telling us – life is to be appreciated, everything that has ever happened led up to this moment whether it’s meaningful or not. We are alive because of all the happiness and sadness that has been meted out on the superior and the inferior. Our descendants survived for the hope that we would be happier than them. Nature exists for us; it doesn’t exist because of us. We should appreciate it more. But as humans, we only relate to humanistic things. This is why I think this sequence gets such disdain – we are so obsessed with ourselves that once something happens that doesn’t have a single human or talking animal on screen, we get bored because it’s not about us. The thing is, Earth is not about us, it’s about all things. We aren’t as special as we think we are, we are ultimately just a grain of sand in the vast history of time that the Universe has existed. Once we realize our ultimate inferiority in the grand scheme of things is when we can start fully asking questions about life and the reason to why we are here. I believe Malick has a fairly agnostic idea of life, given the ending to this mammoth of a film.
The ending of The Tree of Life is completely ambiguous. Every last shot of it is difficult to fully comprehend what’s going on. The most common interpretation is that this is an afterlife. Another interpretation is that Jack has given up the nature lifestyle that he ultimately adopted from his father. My idea of the scene is a bit difficult to fully explain, but here goes. There’s a moment in this sequence where the mother and Jack’s wife are together and Mrs. Obrien whispers something about how she’s passing herself through his son to her or something, I’m not sure. So, sit down for this. My idea is that the reason that Jack has this moment where he reflects on all life and everything around him is that his wife has just told him that she’s going to have a baby. This one scene of the film is showing how life is passed on. The mother gives birth to the son, the son impregnates his wife and she gives birth to a child. Life is passed on to create new life. The cycle continues. Why does Jack see all of the people in his life? Because these are the people who made him what he is today. These are the people to made him, just like nature has made humans, people make other people. The father, his brothers, and his mother are all part of Jack’s genetic code. Life begins anew.
I’m sure there are a lot of things I’m missing. But that’s what second, third, fourth, fifth, and so on viewings are for. If you haven’t seen this film yet, run out and see it. It’s more than worth it.