Terrence Malick’s career-long existential examination of Man v. Nature continues with this year’s Best Picture nominee Tree of Life. If you are familiar with his previous work (The Thin Red Line, Days of Heaven, The New World) you know what to expect: lush visuals, contemplative voice-over, and a steady pace. These defining qualities of Malick’s pictures are unfortunately also why they will never reach a mainstream audience. Tree of Life will stick out like a sore thumb in a multiplex, but hopefully in a way that will draw and hold your attention.
The film opens with a flickering visual effect surrounded by darkness. It could be a nebula expanding light-years across or it could be the stirrings of microscopic life. We are then introduced to the O’Brien family, specifically the father (Brad Pitt), the mother (Jessica Chastain), and Jack (Sean Penn / Hunter McCracken) and his brothers. We find out one of Jack’s brothers has died, and then jump to the beginning of time. The universe expands, gases expand and contract into galaxies. Oceans form and create the building blocks of life. The much ballyhooed dinosaurs make an appearance, and then it’s on to the O’Briens and the meat of the story. The major dichotomy of the film is the beauty and elegance of nature, and man’s willful attempt to control it. Jack’s mother is the embodiment of grace and Jack’s father is man’s constructive and destructive force. In the middle is Jack, trying to figure out his way between the two with varying success.
Malick’s hallmark cinematography is at once immaculate and chaotic. The production is sparse yet rich in detail. The performances are pretty solid across the board, with the actors playing Young Jack and his brothers providing the most nuance. The script and voice-over are classic Malick, which is to say economical and at times ponderous. The creation sequence and the visual effects that bookend the film are spectacular. All the effects feel homemade and organic (aside from the dinos of course) and they hit you in a way that the antiseptic clean lines of most modern CG does not.
The existential explorations of Tree of Life and other Malick films offer a far deeper experience than traditional Hollywood fare. If you happen to walk out of the theater at dusk you’ll feel like you still might be in the film. The world that surrounds you will be beautiful, and the delicacy of life will swirl through your head. It’s a huge testament to the effortless cinematography and the thought-provoking narration. Malick hasn’t lost a step.