Every so often, a movie event comes along, one that is so momentous that it defies both expectations as well as explanation. Such is Terrence Mallick’s latest visual feast, The Tree of Life. The film itself follows (in the loosest sense of the word) the very birth of the cosmos while simultaneously charting the family life of a mother, father, and their sons. The project is certainly an ambitious one, but in creating a film of such epic proportions, Mallick is almost unable to live up to his own hype. This isn’t to say that The Tree of Life is a failure. It operates well within its own story world. Unfortunately though, with such lofty hopes for itself, it becomes difficult to live up to its own expectations at times.
One of the biggest issues for the film is maintaining a grasp on all three of these separate pieces: the big bang, the family, and the adult life of one of the family’s children. They tend to operate somewhat independently of one another, yet they find themselves situated within the same movie. The Tree of Life positions itself to work better as a series of films, much like The Decalogue, rather than one cohesive piece. Truth be told, the issues of The Tree of Life almost solely stem from this forced acceptance of three surprisingly different stories into one long narrative.
Thankfully, the thematic similarities that are shared between these three parts help the audience to make sense as the movie lazily drifts from one account to the next. Unfortunately, Mallick’s main difficulty is in finding which of these storylines deserves the audience’s attention and emotional investment most. If these parts had been presented as separate parts, the movie arguably would have lost some of its potency, but in terms of structuring, it simply would have been more logical. As it exists today, the interspersed images of the big bang and sleepy suburban Texas are incredibly powerful, but they’re painfully uneven. There are moments where the family will be neglected for almost 30 minutes as Mallick lingers on images of the creation of the Universe. Other times, we hop through time as the family grows apart through the children’s personal accounts of the loss of innocence. While, once again, these sights and sounds and stories are incredibly effective, their sporadic presentation hinders any real connection to the story world.
However, one thing that The Tree of Life does perfectly is create an emotional connection with its characters. It’s almost as if the film was meant to be felt or experienced rather than seen. This is due, largely in part, to the presence of truly phenomenal actors. There were numerous occasions throughout the film where, even if the story was fractured, the emotion was perfectly intact. The film doesn’t need exposition or explanation because we are familiar with these characters. In many ways, we are or have been these characters. If Mallick was striving for an exploration of the universality of human emotion, he certainly achieved it with this film.
Even in moments where the experiences were unfamiliar, the superb acting helps the film along. The luminous Jessica Chastain alone deserves a great deal of credit for the film’s success. While her stunning beauty is certainly one of the most noticeable features of the character, she proves herself an indispensable part of this world and an actress of unparalleled talent. Her transformation from a young woman in love, to a mother, to a woman trying to make sense of her life after the loss of a child is breathtakingly beautiful and heartbreakingly honest.
That’s the thing about The Tree of Life, much like life itself it’s a mixed bag, it’s a work in progress, and it’s difficult to make sense of it all. While Mallick certainly deserves credit for trying, in the end, it is a strong film, but it is not without its flaws. While the creation of the cosmos is visually stunning and provides a certain emotional strength to the film, the uneven pacing and its random insertion is at times distracting. Still, in the end, The Tree of Life defies convention and even defies explanation, as a film that is experienced, something that is felt, and more importantly, something that is very much a part of our lives long after the credits.