Cannes 2011: What Terrence Malick’s ‘The Tree of Life’ is actually about (yes, we finally see it)


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After several years of filmgoer anticipation -- and nearly 40 years of gestation in Terrence Malick’s mind -- ‘The Tree of Life’ was finally unveiled Monday morning to the media at the Cannes Film Festival.

Even before the trailer hit the Web in December, many questions about the mysterious project had bubbled up. How much does Sean Penn’s character actually speak? Is there really a dinosaur in the film, and how big is its role ? And what’s the darned thing about?


In order, the answers are: not much (but his weather-beaten face says volumes); yes, and it’s kind of an important part; and, finally, well, the last one is tricky.

Describing the film isn’t easy because ‘Tree’ rarely follows a conventional narrative path, and in fact contains only snippets of what most viewers would consider dialogue. And yet there are thousands of words that can, and likely will, be written interpreting Malick’s shots. So here goes. (Incidentally, this isn’t a review, but an impressionistic take on a movie whose first screening concluded just a short time ago. Also, note that there are spoilers ahead -- not in a traditional, the-butler-did-it sense; you couldn’t spoil this film that way if you tried, but certainly in terms of the arc and individual scenes. And of course if you want to see for yourself, you won’t have to wait much longer: Fox Searchlight releases the movie to theaters on May 27.)

The movie starts off with a tragedy in the small-town Texas family of Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien (Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain) circa the middle of the 20th century. The family learns of it by messenger, and we divine that one of their three children is now dead. Mother and father mourn the loss of the child in different ways, a function of their very different constitutions. Mr. O’Brien has some kind of solid, if unremarkable, 1950s job at an airport (though we later learn he always wanted to be a musician). Chastain’s character, a devoted housewife, is a nurturing mother and almost angelic spirit, which stands in sharp contrast to her husband’s stubborn and rage-prone personality.

When the news about the death comes, Mr. O’Brien responds by doing work around the house and lowering his head through the pain, while his wife takes walks into the woods, crying out to the heavens for an explanation. Their personalities bleed into their worldviews too, with the much-described conflict between his ‘nature’ and her ‘grace’ highlighted in the trailer.

We speed ahead to the present day and the character of Jack (Sean Penn), who is the grown-up version of one of the surviving sons. Jack has some kind of fancy architectural job but is plagued by demons, clearly related, though certainly not limited, to the death of his brother as well as his troubled relationship with his father. We get a few minutes of Jack’s life, and an overheard snippet on the phone with said parent.

But what feels like standard movie exposition quickly takes a sharp turn when we’re feted with about 20 minutes of the elemental and cosmic footage that’s been making all the headlines. At first it looks like it could be a depiction of heaven or hell, but it soon becomes clear that it’s a story of creation -- or of Creation, as some iteration of the Big Bang unfolds before our eyes. Mrs. O’Brien’s questioning of the universe has led us to how the universe, indeed, came to be. Meteors rain down, planets constellate, and lava and other geologic matter overflows. We finally end up underwater, where the first signs of life have begun to present themselves. That gives way to a shot of a dinosaur on the beach, which is pretty much the craziest shot in any movie this viewer has seen recently. That is, until the next shot, when a larger dinosaur takes pity -- yes, dinosaurs have emotions here -- on a wounded smaller one.


Then the natural images wrap up, and we are back in mid-century Texas, where we will spend the bulk of the story. This time we have flashed back to two decades before the tragedy, at the origin of a different story -- the O’Briens as they fall in love, have their first child and begin to raise him. There’s a tenderness among all three when the child is young, but as the boy grows and two more sons are born, the coldness of Pitt’s character becomes more apparent -- he demands a military-school level of obedience from his sons -- and the gap between man and wife, the latter of whom remains a woman of sympathy and softness, widens.

Although all of this unfolds in sequence, we see their lives not as we would in conventional scenes, but in morsels and snatches, moments that exist mainly to further our understanding of the characters and their relationships. The movie largely consists of seemingly overheard bits of conversation and stolen looks at these people’s lives. And it’s episodic -- the boys cause trouble, they go to church, they squabble with one another and, most important, they clash with their father and run into the arms of their mother.

As we see all of this, with Malick interweaving shots of nature (particularly his trademark trees-from-below shots), we also get a host of philosophical questions, often stage-whispered by various characters in voice-over. Despite the Edenic title, the book of Job is a big theme here, cited explicitly several times and implicitly more often. Indeed, in addition to youth and identity, and parents and children, and love and family, this a movie very much about sadness and suffering, not to mention religion generally.

Toward the end of the film, we get back to Penn’s Jack, who at quick moments throughout all this has been shown wandering through various forms of rugged terrain. As Alexandre Desplat’s score swells, Jack ends up on a beach, in a scene we won’t give away but whose meaning will no doubt be among the most debated of the movie.

Many will no doubt marvel at ‘Tree of Life’ as a metaphysical experience that is also sensual and poetic, although some will probably think it fragmented and showy, and even call it a naked emperor. Indeed, at the media screening Monday morning, catcalls collided with applause. Malick seems to be saying that there are many ways to view the world; it is perhaps fitting, then, that there will be an equally wide spectrum of opinions about his film.



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-- Steven Zeitchik in Cannes, France