Earlier this spring I embarked on what can only be called a “navel-gazing cinematic odyssey” when, alongside roommate Tim Goessling, I sat down to watch all the Terrence Malick movies I’d been avoiding my entire life. MARATHON! It’s easy to understand the hesitation, I hope — Malick’s movies aren’t known for their accessibility or whimsy, and even his shorter entries are supposed to last forever. Why ruminate on the existential plight of man as told through the reflection of a butterfly when there are Jackasses to be punched in the nuts? But as an Art Lover with glasses — or at least, at the time, the need for glasses — I knew it was my responsibility to at some point get down to business.
So I did. Badlands. Days of Heaven*. The Thin Red Line. The New World. All chewed on, swallowed, and digested in the hopes that I might accomplish two things: 1) be able to hold my head high at THOSE kinds of parties and 2) walk into The Tree of Life, at that point the 2011 Palme d’Or winner, with something less than complete ignorance. Over several weeks Tim and I became very familiar with what we’ll call “Terry’s Tics” — those narrative and stylistic choices you see again and again in the filmmaker’s work. Extensive voiceover, for starters. An obsession with “innocence,” especially as exemplified by nature. People living on the fringes of society. Man’s inhumanity to man. Bible passages. Whispering. Classical music.
The Tree of Life, if you must know, manages to take every one of those tics, marry it to every thought Terry’s ever had, and somehow birth an occasionally coherent — and always beautiful — examination of What It Means To Be Alive. Let’s see how!
Oh, hey there! Life kicks off the way any good film does, with you wondering what the f*ck it is you’re seeing and hearing. An hour later, the plot reveals itself: in Waco, TX stern but loving Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt) and his angelic wife (Jessica Chastain) do their best to raise three boys, the eldest of whom, Jack, will grow up to be Sean Penn. Off-screen and in muted flashback, his younger brother is killed at war. One time Jack steals a neighbor’s lace underwear.
“Thin” might even be too liberal a way of describing the film’s plot, but that’s okay — plot isn’t what matters. Like he did in The Thin Red Line, Malick is far more interested in tethering a small, deeply personal story to a much BIGGER story. And maybe the BIGGEST (if not the Greatest Ever Told) story: the formation and expansion of Planet Earth.
By this point you’ve heard about the movie’s 30 minute “birth of the earth” sequence, which finds time for undulating nebulas, time-lapse photosynthesis, and dinosaurs. And it feels, at first, a little masturbatory. Beautiful and poetic, sure…but cut the whole thing from the film and what changes? Less bathroom breaks! Then you begin to consider the universality Malick’s aiming for — the emphasis on a human and familial condition as it’s existed for time immemorial, even in dinosaurs, and the subtle and not-so-subtle ways in which our world has been shaped. Soon Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien feel less like combative Waco parents than they do MOTHER and FATHER of the whole goddamn world, with philosophies and concerns (father, nature; mother, grace) that echo well beyond one town, or moment in American history.
And it’s oddly because of that wide-angle perspective that the very specific elements of Jack’s boyhood ring out so clearly. There are overly ponderous moments that scream “2001! Monoliths and Strauss!” maybe too much, but there’s also this home-movie level of personal intimacy that keeps things grounded and makes Life a better, less ostentatious film than the title or some CGIed sequences might suggest. It’s interested in the cosmic only as much as it relates to human beings.
The actors playing those human beings seriously knock it out the park. Brad Pitt, who I’ve never considered more than just serviceable in anything but Inglourious Basterds, manages to convey the hard-edged and unconditionally loving sides of a guy that’s basically Zeus to his three boys. Opposite that, Jessica Chastain embodies goodness and light in a way that doesn’t feel naïve (or worse, hippy-dippy sexy). Sean Penn, as he’s told you himself, is just sort of there.
Don’t steal this line or anything, but it’s the kids who really “bring Life to life.” I’ve never seen young actors so nail the real qualities of boyhood – the fighting, fake and real; the stabs at manhood; the random violence; the confusion – without seeming like they’re trying way too hard. From their backyard games to the “trust” exercise that gets the middle one shot in the hand, these kids are brothers. It’s fun, too, to determine which one of them will grow up to be Sean Penn. If you didn’t know before, you DEFINITELY figured it out when one of them started breaking windows and tying frogs to rockets. Pizza’s here!
At this point it might be appropriate to discuss the film’s technical merits. Okay: it looks and sounds like a million bucks. You will not be disappointed with the things you are seeing and hearing, even when you don’t understand them! If you’re at all familiar with Malick, you won’t be surprised to learn that he’s found the perfect composer (Alexandre Desplat) and classical music with which to score this movie. Hell, even the whispering — of which there’s an awful lot — raises the roof. “Father. Mother. Always you wrestle inside me.” (And inside me, but I LOVE it.)
There is more to say about Life — pages upon pages upon pages of Malick biography, production background, and exhaustive philosophical inquiry — but at 1000 words already, this “review” is clearly starting to lose steam. So I’ll end with this: Life is an Everlasting Gobstopper of metaphysical goodness/nature porn that is absolutely worth your time and patience. If you still have the option to see Life in theaters, go see it.