There’s a battle going on in Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life .
It’s a battle that the filmmaker has been trying to negotiate and balance throughout every one of his films, before delving into it headlong in his latest.
Early on in Tree of Life , the voice-over narration dictates that it’s difficult to balance nature and grace. This balance, on so many fronts has come to dictate Malick’s cinematic catalogue, and it’s a struggle he finally decided to devote a whole picture exclusively and directly towards.
For so long, Malick has used the two elements as magnetic polar opposites. But in Tree of Life he finally fleshes it out, directly and purposefully, in several different meanings and connotations.
The first example of the dichotomy is the most overt. The war waged between the physical world and the celestial world.
This is probably the largest test of the filmgoer’s resolve, as Malick devotes lengthy stretches of time ““ most notably about 15 minutes into the film for about a 15-minute sequence ““ to exquisite images of nature, the planets and even dinosaurs. Yes, dinosaurs.
It’s a flip-flop technique that weaves its way throughout the entire narrative of the film. Malick seems loath to dwell too long on the domestic drama of the O’Brien family, choosing to break the action at several points for lengthy ruminations on not only our relationship to the physical world, but our connection to our mortal coils.
A series of voice-overs coupled with an ominous on screen celestial flame-like glow consistently disrupt any attempt the film may make at a traditional linear narrative.
Malick clearly doesn’t want anyone getting too comfortable in the flow of either side of the war he’s decided to wage, which is a brilliant cinematic technique even if it will infuriate the less patient moviegoer.
The second battle between nature and grace takes place within the narrative structure, amongst the characters themselves.
The father (Brad Pitt) struggles to balance his desire to be feared and respected by his family with any desire he might have to actually be loved by them. His authoritarian rule is obviously a necessity to him in his goal to maintain order, but once he decides to flex that muscle, it shockingly affects his familial relationships, often irreparably.
On the flip-side is the astounding work of Jessica Chastain as the mother. Probably the fullest realization of a female character Malick has ever attempted, she plays the middle-man (or woman) between Pitt’s heavy hand and the nature of the growing children.
Not only is she negotiating the two sides of the family, she also manages the war within herself. One of her best scenes comes when one her children asks why she lets her husband walk all over her. Instead of chastising the child, she primes for a response, before the realization washes over her face that she must actually consider the question.
Finally, there’s the sparse use of Sean Penn as the grown up version of their son, Jack. It is through him that Malick tackles the affects of death within the individual, on the family and, as a bonus aside, the war between the idealized, suburban past and a more corporate, grown-up future. There’s little to say about Penn’s performance, as he only appears as both prelude and coda to the domestic and celestial musings to come.
Speaking of preludes and codas, there’s one final battle being waged in The Tree of Life and it’s one that’s less overt.
It’s clear that Malick is dancing a line between life and death throughout, but the subtle structural decision he makes forms the ultimate clash.
In chronicling the emotions and events of dealing with life’s triumphs and disappointments, Malick has chosen a deliberate structure for The Tree of Life , which is that of a requiem mass.
Without getting too in-depth in the musical or religious structure, if one’s ears are attuned, the lengthy nature sequence early on in the film is underscored by a “˜Lacrimosa’ (part of Mozart’s requiem composition), ditto an extended sequence late in the film dealing with the hereafter that is bombarded with choral “˜amens’.
The film goes from solo, to ensemble, weaving through the various voices that fully tell the tale of the life he’s focused on (that is, the family’s) and tackles a life from all the angles of a funeral rite ““ remembrance, repentance, forgiveness, piety and, finally, celebration.
Maybe that’s an overly sacramental reading, but the film does start with a quotation from the Book of Job.
What’s left throughout all this is Malick’s most challenging film yet, but also possibly his most brilliant. The Tree of Life is not a film for everyone and it does require a lot of patience. However, for audiences willing to look past a non-traditional structure and a constantly interrupted narrative, the result is a film unlike one we’ve seen in a very long time. Which, nowadays, is what we’ve come to expect from Terrence Malick.
The Tree of Life opens in Toronto theatres June 10. The film opens at TIFF Bell Lightbox on June 17 for a two-week engagement.