THE TREE OF LIFE is a visually stunning Christian allegory that seeks to answer the ultimate question: “What is the meaning of life?” Terrence Malick has a history with heaven; he wrote and directed the exquisite 1978 DAYS OF HEAVEN. The images from that film have never left me and neither will THE TREE OF LIFE which won this year’s Cannes Film Festival Palme D’Or.
The film attempts to describe the beginning of time and life, through the lens of the old and new testaments, creation, evolution, birth and death, good and evil, redemption, and the afterlife. The film pivots on one archetypal family and these scenes are viscerally powerful, disturbing, transportingly beautiful — and extraordinarily well-acted. We meet this family at a crossroads–they have just learned of the death of their son. Brad Pitt is especially good as the stern Father ultimately chastened and humanized by his son’s death; Jessica Chastain is the sensual but dutiful Mother through whom the Son came; Sean Penn is one of the three sons looking back at his life in this family, he especially among his brothers, questioning the father’s authority, wondering why they should be good if he is not. And then he moves forward after the sacrifice of his brother to a new realization. A final voice-over is an invocation of love; without love our lives merely flash by.
Malick has found a visual rhythm and rhetoric so inevitable, we feel as though these images spring from our deepest selves; we absorb them through our ears and eyes and psyches and souls. Wind blowing through a lace curtain on a spring day; a glimpse of sunlight through a mother’s hair, the restless feeling of being a child, the mystery of our parents–as Malick says, always warring within us … I can hardly articulate the power of what is conveyed here about who we are, the loneliness of life, and mortality. James Agee’s “Knoxville Summer of 1915” comes close.
Ultimately THE TREE OF LIFE leans on an explicitly religious agenda to give meaning to the question of our existence. It diminishes the scope of what is otherwise, and surely–a cinematic masterpiece.
You must see it and tell me what you think.