The Tree of Life isn’t easily explained through conventional filmic analysis. I don’t have the resources within me, for instance, to explain why Sean Penn is in this movie, or why director Terrence Malick felt the need to spend thousands of dollars on a CGI-heavy recreation of the forming of the world. But, for every fault to be found in the film, none can replace the eternal face that I fell – positively, undeniably fell – under the director’s spell for just about every minute of the 135 minutes I spent watching this film, in a way I never have in a movie theater before. The human story found here doesn’t recall my own childhood in the slightest, and yet watching the film, I couldn’t help but feel connected to not merely the characters but the world they inhabit in a way I didn’t quite understand at first. I felt something that, if I may, might be the foremost (and perhaps only, but that says more about me than the film) spiritual experience in my life. I wasn’t so much watching a film as accepting it and letting it wash over me. I wasn’t “analyzing” shots or dialogue, as I tend to do in order to stake my claim as a film critic worth his salt. I was just there, and also not there – in some sort of weird limbo where I existed less as a physical body and more as conception of myself. It was an experience, but perhaps, a passive one. I let the film take me and it accepted – part of me is still swimming around in there.
Defining this film, or any of Malick’s films, in terms of narrative and plot do the director, never one to pack his films in with events, a great dis-service. There are human characters in Malick’s film – a father, a son, a few others who exist solely to occupy time and space, and I mean that in the best possible way – but the story is less about them than Malick’s vision of the eternal connection between each of them and everyone, their environment, and the entire span of humanity. It’s less a narrative and more a feeling, explored mostly through Emmanuel Lubezki’s painterly, gliding camera, and it’s a feeling I’ve seldom felt before.
It’s tempting to compare the film to others I’ve seen to describe it a little more objectively. The one being thrown out most seems to be 2001: A Space Odyssey. While I understand the connection, the two films strike me as polar opposites. 2001: A Space Odyssey is Kubrick’s frosty dissection of man’s relationship to technology, something which presents us as feeble and unable to truly “reach” for the stars we aspire to. It’s often seen as an experience more than a conventional narrative, one which individuals shouldn’t intellectualize but should simply feel. But it has a thesis, conveyed by images and sound more than anything else. At the very least, Kubrick’s precision mimics intellectualism. Despite the personal nature of the film, it always seems like he’s in control. Here, Malick is up to something different. It’s not just that the film is profoundly warm and human, a deep contrast to anything Kubrick ever made, but that he seems more willing to just let go. As such, we’re invited to put more of ourselves in the film, not to debate with it, Kubrick’s forte, but to simply lay back and find ourselves awash in the oceans and rivers of film Malick does not so much construct, but imply. We fill out the rest while the film remains eternally drift.
It’s hard to describe what Malick is able to do with The Tree of Life, so much so that I don’t even think it’s worth going into greater detail about the film. Perhaps its most telling as a cinematic exercise on his part, not in something so formal as creating a style or a certain sense of composition, but in searching for something. It’s best described as Malick’s own spiritual striving for meaning and connected-ness in the world, not through narrative or character but through his pure subjective camera moving in and out of homes and neighborhoods and all of manner of locations and combining them in a formless mood-piece, a tapestry, or a landscape of the mind. But it works, seemingly counter-intuitively for something so personal to the filmmaker, as a personal experience to the viewer as well. It’s perhaps the most personal film I’ve seen released during my young lifetime. I’m not religious in the least. And I’ve never been huge on traditionalist family ties either. But when I found myself sitting in a theater, mouth agape at Malick’s deeply felt, impressionistic vision of humanity, I felt that rare experience, something surreal and unexplainable and a feeling which the movies ought to give us but which they never do. I felt, after all, that for all our species does to the world, all the harm it causes itself, and for all the depression, violence, and poverty found in society, maybe there’s something worthwhile about us after all. Or maybe I just felt the sublime waters of Malick’s vision guiding me a bit over that-a-way. I’m not sure. For Malick they’re one and the same.
Score: I don’t really feel a numerical score is appropriate for a film that’s technically imperfect by conventional film standards but which I found monumentally affecting on its own terms, which are anything but conventional. If I must, it’s a 10/10 and then some.