One film critic speculated that Terrence Malick’s new movie, Tree of Life, might be dedicated to his brother who died under mysterious circumstances at the age of nineteen. Malick’s recent work, long overdue, revolves around a nuclear American family in the late 50’s, and the story seems seductively autobiographical, but there is so much more to this loose narrative than the psychological pondering of a man raking over his past.
If this film is a homage then Malick has also created a dirge for the self-built man of the past, an ode to childhood when kids played outdoors on long afternoons and made stilts out of coffee cans and manila rope or talked to each other through strings and cans. No Facebook, no Sony Playstations, no texting, no shunning neighbors for spanking their kids, and no dual family earners, Tree of Life fixes our gaze on a stay-at-home wife, played by Jessica Chastian, who raises three sons while her husband, Brad Pitt, helps build a nation only to find he is expendable in the end. All the characters are virtually nameless except one of Brad Pitt’s son’s, who is arguably the main character, Jack.
Chastian’s ethereal character embodies all the pure ideals of womanhood and motherhood. She is kind, full of grace and light, gentle, to the point of being too delicate, breakable, and vulnerable. Portrayals of women such as this are dangerous, leading to an overly simplistic dualism. The higher the pedestal, the greater the fall, and this depiction may be precisely Malick’s point. The mother in Tree of Life barely speaks, other than the voice-overs each character shares, but she tucks her boys into bed, makes them meatloaf, creamed spinach, and mashed potatoes, treats their wounds with iodine, wakes them up by slipping ice cubes under their pajamas, and only once tries to defy her angry, frustrated husband. Malick isn’t championing any of these characters in the end, he’s simply giving us a glimpse to a time long lost.
Many film critics and film lovers are currently befuddled or aghast by the current gender roles depicted in cinema. We see too often the infantalized male, who acts like a big kid, refusing to grow up or incapable of maturation. His counter-part is the tightly wound career woman, who needs to get laid and shut up. For these critics there’s an underlying nostalgia for the gender roles of yore, which Malick revisits using both a magnifying glance and a telescope to study. Brad Pitt fully embraces the role of a stoic and unforgiving father with disturbing veracity. Men like him are a dying breed, war veterans who earned their manhood on the battlefield only to return to the anesthetizing suburban life where duties have been completely redefined. When his ideals are shattered, his children inherit his frustrations and must carry the weight of his disappointment.
Tree of Life doesn’t just revolve around family matters but encompasses the primordial seas, tracks the expanse of the universe, and even features a cameo of dinosaurs. Strangely enough the family’s storyline, if you can call it such, mirrors the indifference and mystery portrayed in the dinosaur vignettes. The film teases viewers with a humanist storyline, beginning with the death of one of the sons, Sean Penn’s brother to be exact, who plays Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastian’s son. We don’t know why Penn’s brother died, but his loss rents a rift in this family’s world, and Malick hones in on their particular universe to pan out to the universal universe.
A great deal of the film comprises breath-taking footage of dinosaurs hunting, volcanoes erupting, jellyfish dancing, and supernovas flaring. Viewers may, more than likely, experience a sense of vertigo. We instinctively need to see an image of ourselves to feel grounded and to make sense of the world. God didn’t make man in his image, but we made God in ours. Malick plays with this primal drive, purposefully alienating us from ourselves by showing us the cosmos, marine life, and geological wonders. The prehistoric creatures may serve as contrast against the minutiae of everyday American family life, or, perhaps Malick nudges us to see that all life is a continuous spectrum, so continuous the spectrum loops back into itself. This loop is messy, barely impenetrable, except through love, so decrees Jessica Chastian’s character.
Malick cycles us through life, death, love, hate, loss, and eventual redemption and creates a welcome antidote to the heavy CGI blockbusters the production companies pimp out during the summers. Though long, clocking in at two and half hours, the time spent is well worth this awe-inspiring journey. This is a story about a boy, a family, a lost culture, the human race, the human range of capability and disability, and the measure of man and his place in the universe.