Whispers, heard throughout. Not so random thoughts, observations, quotations of those who came before. Thoughts of several family members, perhaps seen only as memory fragments. If you ever stop and think on what led you to where you are, you may also begin audibly expressing your feelings, your frustrations. More often, you internalize. When you're a child, some of those thoughts may be directed at a stern but nuturing parent. In a moment you may curse him to banishment, away from your happy home. You may later defend him right back to him, explaining that you understand why he does what he does.
The life of a family in 1950s Texas is the foundation of writer/director Terrence Malick's THE TREE OF LIFE, a film like none other I've seen. Oh, I was reminded at times of seminal works like Kubrick's 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY and also-rans like Darren Aronofsky's THE FOUNTAIN. I also likened those whispers to some of the narration in Malick's own BADLANDS. Otherwise, THE TREE OF LIFE stands alone in singular beauty and wonder, presented not as a linear work but a fragmented poem, much they way we might sit and remember our own past lives.
A middle-aged architect named Jack (Sean Penn) finds himself lost in the pages of his own history, reminscing of simpler but urgent adolescent days. As he wanders through his workday, barely listening to colleagues and riding in elevators, he revisits that neighborhood block in his small town, the scene of the usual boyhood things: paternal reprimand and guidance, emerging lust, mischief, chores, frustration. These scenes are rendered in shots that rarely last more than five seconds. Many will recognize their own childhoods in these flashes.
Jack remembers his father (Brad Pitt), whose first name we never learn (and children would certainly never dare to utter their parents' first names) as a tough but loving man who would not tolerate being called "dad" and tried to pass along the sort of advice that could bring success to a man in America: don't be too good, don't let anyone take advantage of you. Mr. O'Brien sacrificed a music career to become an inventor, repeatedly seeing his attempts at securing patents unfulfilled. Perhaps he desires that his son not follow in those footsteps.
We do not learn very much about the grown up Jack. We see him briefly in his house, an unidentified woman awakening with him. We see no children. What has become of his life? His memories are haunted by the death of his brother, years after the central events of THE TREE OF LIFE. His mother would receive a telegram, the kind parents got when their children did not return from war. His father would break down after learning the news over the phone, then vainly trying to shrug it off and go back to work. He just couldn't. Neither can Jack, all these years later.
I haven't yet mentioned the breadth of THE TREE OF LIFE's ambitions. No less than an examination of the creation and perpetuation of life itself. Footage of the Big Bang, mysterious auras, and dinosaurs are also part of this film. The first image is of a verse from the Old Testament book of Job:
"Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation...while the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?"
A mysterious flame will appear. Clips of rolling fire and water. The Big Bang? Creation? I sat and wondered if Malick was espousing a particular viewpoint, of how it all began. Christianity teaches that God created the earth, with countless Sunday School teachers and pastors trying to explain that the earth is several thousand years old rather than several million. But what about those dinosaurs? Malick actually dares to show them in a scene that questions instinct versus mercy. Or is it back to grace versus nature? Viewers will doubtless have many different things to say about why that predatory Troodon spares the wounded Parasaurolophus. A belief system, whether one espouses "faith" will certainly color one's take.
When I read those first verses of Genesis, I always wondered about time itself. How much time really elapsed after God breathed the world into being over the face of the deep. A formless world. You may have heard of the "gap theory" and its variants. The Bible states that God created the earth in seven days. Twenty-four days? Much debate cotinues to rage over that question. Malick shows scenes of protozoa and increasingly complex lifeforms before we find ourselves back in Waco, Texas with the O'Brien family. Many viewers find it impossible to connect the evolutionary sequences with the 1950s ones. They find it pretentious.
Many also scratched their heads over the ethereal beauty of Malick's WWII pic THE THIN RED LINE. It confused folks; they preferred Speielberg's straight-ahead war drama SAVING PRIVATE RYAN. Malick has spent 40 years composing cinematic essays, philosophical plays that are far deeper than the coffee table book surfaces would suggest. The staggering visual beauty of DAYS OF HEAVEN and THE NEW WORLD are exteriors leading to a gateway to contemplation for more patient viewers. As I've covered, most viewers need constant stimulation. I found THE TREE OF LIFE quite stimulating, relaxing, and disturbing. To prompt large questions as this film does is noble enough, but for such an elegiac and personal film to come of it is quite miraculous. I won't try to say too much more about it. See it, and decide if it is worth many more journeys. I will certainly be taking them.