In East of Eden Steinbeck writes that there are two categories of people: those who are destroyed by death, whose world ‘does not have death as a member [in it]’ (347), and then there are people who see death merely as ‘the thing promised and expected’- these people view it in rather practical terms. I think that this description very much encapsulates the struggle felt in Malick’s The Tree of Life. The film explores the ways in which one family deals with the unanswerable questions that life unveils, and it attempts to evoke the unique mechanisms in coping, overcoming, and sometimes even accepting the paradoxes of life and death.
When I think of The Tree of Life, the first thing that comes to my mind is Klimt’s famous mural that goes by the same name and philosophy. The endless and luscious swirls extending beyond the borders of the painting, and the remarkable use of stark colours and detail is as captivating as Malick’s cinematography. His stunning visuals serve to position nature at the forefront as something sublime and infinite. The grand waterfalls, vigorous fires, and endless trees shot from below (to appear even greater from our pathetic and minuscule height) – these images are not only pleasing to the eye but they work upon the viewer’s inner feelings and emotions. They make us feel something intricate – they haunt us – just like the symbols in Klimt’s mural.
The majority of the film is conceived of flashbacks. Now grownup, Jack O’Brien (Sean Penn) remembers the death of his younger brother R.L, who died at nineteen (a death certainly felt throughout the film). Memories of his hometown, Waco, Texas, intertwined with made up settings, display a sense of melancholy and a presence of unavoidable death. There’s a beautiful montage that captures the gentle qualities and unconditional love of a mother; this is done as a series of various close-up shots depicting different fabrics (ranging from silk curtains, to the opaqueness of a mother’s dress), all in white. This is just one example of the technical investment in the film.
Because the film conveys so much of the intensity felt in nature, a side of life that cannot be verbalized, what I find overwhelming sometimes is that there is a lot detracting from the overall essence and the power of these images. I think that parts of the narration are a bit iffy, bordering on kitschy. There are instances when Jack asks too many “why” and “how” questions – questions which we as viewers have already grasped. Sometimes you just want to say, “I get the point already – I am capable of asking these questions myself.” We’re already always thinking: why did he do it? Why did Jack enter the house and steal the dress? Why did Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt) have to hurt his son like that? Why did Jack shout at his own father? We don’t need to be spoon-fed all the time – it makes it so much more poignant when left to our own ambiguity.
Then there are lines that are just “bad-taste Hollywood”, by that I mean cheesy and over the top: “the only way to be happy is to love”. In the same way, I find the last ten minutes of the film (the magical realism part) – where Mrs. O’Brien (Jessica Chastain) hands her son over to God in Jack’s imagination – an unnecessary addition weakening the spirit and overall quality of the film.
All in all, I would’ve liked to have seen this film in its raw state – where less and simplicity is more. I find that the film already expresses the sublime side of nature and the inner psyche of a child to which no words can do justice. A lot of the narration just didn’t do it for me.