Jack O’Brien is the eldest of three brothers to be raised in an idyllic, mid-century Texas suburb. As he grows up, the audience flutters through impressions of his childhood, accentuated by a symphonic series of cosmic visions from time immemorial. When the family learns that Jack’s younger brother has died, his fever-dream journey turns to reconcile the contradictory faces exposed by his life’s most emotionally piercing moments.
In The Tree of Life, Terrence Malick curates an exhibit of cinematic artifacts that, when experienced together, audaciously respond to some of humanity’s sincerest questions: Who am I? Why am I here? Why isn’t the universe fair? … While the film derives much of its attraction from this magnificent scope, it should be noted that it is, in many ways, a small film. Jack’s family is not exceedingly poor, nor are they subject to any racial prejudice; they’re not struck with any peculiar hardships, and they’ve not suffered any unusual estrangement. Thus, the product is an unapologetic and subjective rumination on a privileged white man’s problems, even though the coincident questions reside universally on the lips of every breathing person. Still, on his deathbed, Jack is called to make sense of his experience on this planet – to resolve the dissonant chord, plucked of nature and grace, whose characteristics emerge at every measure of the cosmic struggle. Malick’s response is pleasingly Socratic, placing an emphasis on the process of examining the conflict, more than the finality of the answer. He achieves complexity through a circumlocutory discourse anchored by oversimple tent poles, rather than marching toward a singular, nuanced position without deviation. His aesthetic is tactile, tender, and frequently ingenious. In fact, his themes are so well explored before the narrative portion of the film really begins to wax, that by the end, he treads dangerously near one too many turns of the screw. All in all, The Tree of Life is a riveting and sensational trip through one man’s subconscious that, for me anyway (and many others, I suspect), unfolds life’s creases along delicate and beautiful lines.
- The Tree of Life (Malick 2011) @ Sundance Kabuki Cinemas