Some films aren’t designed to be watched and absorbed in two hours. They need repeated viewings over the years; they beg for their audience to grow along with them, their meaning evolving over time. Stanley Kubrick’s "2001: A Space Odyssey" is one of those. Terrence Malick’s "The Tree of Life" is another.
Usually a film like this will leave you silent at the end of it, as you begin to make sense of what you’ve just seen and what it all means. If you’re lucky, maybe you have someone with you that you can chew the fat with, someone who will toss ideas and questions back and forth about the movie. We used to call this “let’s go get coffee and talk about it.” Now we call it Twitter.
These days, when a movie like "Tree of Life" is finally seen at the Cannes Film Festival, and in London and later in New York and Los Angeles, the conversation about it will take place loudly and wildly on Twitter. That usually means snap judgments are made and sides are taken. At first, the discussion was whether or not the French audiences booed the Malick film. They did. They booed it immediately, taking no time to think it over. Much of the rest of the audience sat silent and still before breaking into applause. One of the reasons that it took so long for the applause was that people weren’t sure if it was over or not. It wasn’t until Malick’s name appeared on the screen that the audience knew for sure it was over.
Whether or not you get anything out of it will depend on your willingness to look. People are still excavating meaning out of "2001," which, like "Tree of Life," takes place over all time and takes on the daunting challenge of explaining life’s meaning. How do you explain something that shall forever remain a mystery? By doing just that: making the mystery itself the explanation. To that end, is there anything ever put to film as mysteriously beautiful as "The Tree of Life?" I don’t think so.
There is a sequence in the film which meanders around through the subconscious of its characters – probably one character in particular (who grows up to be Sean Penn). As a family absorbs the shock of a death, we are plunged back in time – all the way back in time, back to before there was even life on earth. The seed of desire is planted in an instant. This desire will swell to a lifetime’s searching, a primal need for another person to fulfill it. How lovely to see it played out with such subtlety, without judgment, the truth laid bare.
When you love someone, have grown up with them, they are part of your biology. This film makes the point that the very biology to which you belong is the biology to which all life on earth also belongs. Does it matter, in the end, if it’s the “grace of God" or the hand of nature? It is all part of the life experience because it all exists inside of us.
If it sounds like I’m explaining a religious experience, that’s because the film does sort of play like an artistic revival meeting. It is much closer to a rapture than it is a movie. For an admitted atheist such as myself, I had to remove the literal God element and see it more in terms of this force of life that no one has yet been able to explain (and probably no one ever will). But if you’re a religious person, you will probably experience this film on an entirely different level than I did.
It isn’t all gobbledegook: There is a sort of plot, of sorts. The family mourns the death of one of their own. We see their lives in flashback. A married couple, three kids, a working father who is transferred. Brad Pitt plays the father, Jessica Chastain is the mother. They appear to be your typical American family growing up in the 1950s. Pitt is too hard on the kids, too wrapped up in his work. The mother is gentle, pretty, kind – a teacher. The boys are seeming right out of a Norman Rockwell painting. What could be wrong with this picture?
And that’s just it: There isn’t any right or wrong here. Malick doesn’t want to put any blame on anyone. He’s making a film that is more like a painting – it takes years of practice to be able to paint well in the abstract, but this is how Malick thinks. He’s a lucky auteur that he’s given such free reign to make the kinds of films he prefers to make, and hopefully will continue to make.
Much of what gets said in "Tree of Life" is said in whispers, by characters, about themselves or to someone. These are whispered truths, sometimes hard to bear for the teller. But the truth is the truth: you can deny it but it will still stay within you, always there, always true.
There is a sense of lulling present throughout the film – a lulling back to a different time. This boy’s memories of his childhood, so steeped with primal urges: love, guilt, fear, lust, anger, jealousy. With each memory that is played before us, we think we’re learning something new, that we’re getting a clearer picture of the character – maybe because then it will bring us some understanding about life. But of course, all many of us know for certain is that we have these emotions. We can’t really explain them. But they exist whether we want them to or not.
So much of "Tree of Life" is saturated with beauty, inside and out. The difficult part of it, I think, comes at the end. There is no point in spoiling it, but suffice it to say the ending gives away too much. It is perhaps too literal compared to the rest of the film, which, I believe, sets the movie off balance.
But that’s a small price to pay for the rumination of who and what we are that Malick has worked so hard to bring to us. We don’t get any easy answers, but we get the chance to take a trip through our collective past, to remember moments where one tiny gesture can affect our behavior for the rest of your lives, and to remember once again that these are days for living. Or what’s a heaven for?
More of Sasha Stone's Cannes coverage can be found at Awards Daily.