A Spiritual Experience

By Carl Kozlowski

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Posted June 29, 2011 in Film

I haven’t seen anything this startling by a U.S. director since the days of Stanley Kubrick. But, in what feels like a tribute to the Zen master, the ghostlike Terrence Malick has provided us a rare jewel of a film, The Tree of Life, a pictorial meditation on the meaning of life.

Malick’s films have been few and far between. Counting this picture, he has only directed five of them since the release of Badlands in 1973. Still, what gives him credibility is his visionary approach—spare, haunting and poetic.

Consider this one as his most unique. Less a story, more a visual collage, the film uses the O’Brien family, who lived during the 1940s and ’50s in Waco, Texas, as its backdrop. What we gather from watching the opening scenes are fluid outtakes of the O’Briens interspersed with eons of history and extended shots of cosmic photography. It’s not a standard story. Better to think of this film in acts.

Act I reveals images of the O’Briens: father (Brad Pitt), mother (Jessica Chastain) and their oldest adult son, Jack (Sean Penn). What we learn is that these three are in mourning over the death of one of the O’Brien sons. Jumping back and forth between past and present, the visual impression is one of grief, regret and spiritual yearning.

Act II leaves the present altogether and uses stunning shots of suns, planets and natural disasters to connect the O’Briens to the history of the earth — an evolutionary trek from the beginning of creation through the emergence of Jack’s life as a fetus.

Act III brings us directly into the O’Brien household, starting with the births of their three sons. From here, we catch snippets of their familial bonds — the gentle mother, the stern father, the inevitable conflict between Mr. O’Brien and his impetuous teenage son Jack (Hunter McCracken). These are snapshots of a decade both idyllic and tumultuous. It ends when the father loses his job and moves the family to a new city.

The O’Briens and the cosmic turmoil Malick intersperses seem to be interconnected to an idea he lays out early:  that life consists of nature (evil) and grace (forgiveness), and every day the O’Briens struggle with each.

Malick’s unique style affects how the actors are used in this film. Their scenes are brief, often surrounded by whispers and music. During each shot, nothing can be wasted. Pitt, Chastain, Penn and McCracken successfully forge out of these impressions moments of laughter, tension, sorrow, grief and, in the end, redemption.

It seems that, for Malick, how they look onscreen is as important as what they say. It’s the face that communicates, and he uses each with visual artistry. They join together like elements of a fine Renaissance painting, reflecting light, nature, spirituality and meditation.

Something this beautiful and thought provoking doesn’t happen very often. Like Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, this is one of those films that could define an artistic generation. Yet it’s appeared with so little fanfare that most theaters have barely acknowledged its release.

Perhaps that is what Malick intends: to provide a film that is big and bold, yet ethereal and elusive. He uses trees and plants as his mapping point. They represent our existence, our fixed location on this earth. And yet their lives extend so much deeper than their trunks, stems and leaves.

You might consider The Tree of Life less a film and more of a spiritual experience, and as you become mesmerized by the images, don’t be surprised if you find yourself returning to something inside your head that resembles your own collage. Yes, in case you’ve forgotten, Malick would like to remind you—out there in the eternal cosmic space of your mind and imagination lies your soul.


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