Active Ingredients: Striking, expressive imagery; Philosophical and spiritual pondering
Side Effects: Music; Lost-esque finale; Occasionally too blunt
The Tree of Life is an illusory, fragmented and exhilarating cinematic experience, yet for all its experimentation, it’s not the opaque, impenetrable film it may seem. Rather, it’s a lucid, cogent meditation on the grace and transcendence present in life everywhere, from the planet we live on, to a blade of grass or a beam of light, to the thoughts inside our heads. With his unique eye for small moments of beauty and a decentralized narrative style, Terrence Malick collapses these ideas into one realm of existence, made tangible and real. The film is essentially plotless, but Malick is nothing if not a storyteller. His images communicate powerfully, more directly than could words. We always intuit their meaning, at least emotionally and internally, if not intellectually or literally. In fact, the effect can sometimes be too efficient; the film occasionally underscores a feeling it had already, effortlessly evoked.
Still, Malick has created a wholly cinematic expression, a full and fleshed-out existence both within and without his central character, Jack. The film is composed of a series of almost musical movements, built around a certain emotional theme, perhaps abstract, but always recognizable and real. They’re animated by the elliptical editing of small snatches of life: reality, memories, dreams and thoughts luminously photographed by Emmanuel Lubezki.
In the film’s most breathtaking sequence, Malick imagines the origins of the universe. We see the cosmos born out of a cauldron of gases and explosions, and are struck by the beauty and violence of creation. On such a large scale, these image seem abstract and all the more dramatic. Gradually, the Earth is created, then life in its oceans, then life on land. Eventually, the whole of the universe settles to a front yard in 1950s Waco and the lives of a young boy and his family. We visit the experiences that make up Jack’s life with the same fluidity we had hurtling through eons of celestial evolution. This juxtaposition is the great success of the film both formally and thematically. Malick has created a design so grand and ambitious as to consider all of life, and has filled it with a dense poetry of images and layers of meaning, all the more beautiful for the impossibility of ever discovering them all.