At the Arthouse
Tree of Life goes past masterpiece to revelation, with Houston symbolizinglife's emptiness
What do you call a film that contains both a brilliantly realized depiction of 1950s American childhood and a visually precise account of the creation of the universe, an account that quite possibly comes from the mind of God? If you’ve been paying attention, you’ll know that you call that film The Tree of Life.
It’s a film that’s been keenly anticipated in Houston since 2008, when director Terrence Malick and Sean Penn were shooting in town. Scenes from the Houston Zoo and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston didn’t make the final cut, but there are plenty of shots of Sean Penn wandering through downtown, ignoring the sterile present while his thoughts go both back to the past and up toward heaven.
Houston hadn’t been used as a cautionary symbol of the emptiness of modern life and architecture since 1984’s Paris, Texas. We’re back! I joke.
How else to start trying to describe Malick’s sublime achievement? For all its ambition and time-travel, it’s a rather straightforward story, one that is familiar to anyone who is reasonably Bible literate — which does leave out a vast segment of our allegedly deeply religious nation. Malick begins with a quote from Job. After the old man who had been God’s favorite was put to the test, and driven to ask why he, a faithful servant, had been made to suffer, God replies “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?”
Similarly, when a husband and wife receive the word that a son has died (given the film’s timeline, he may have died in Vietnam), they ask God, in whom they believe quite literally, Why? “Where were You?” the mother, played by Jessica Chastain, herself an angelic beauty, asks in a voiceover.
The film opens with this scene, and then, for an astonishing 20 minutes or so (though you’re scarcely aware of time passing — honest), it gives us God’s response, the same one he gave to Job. That is, a visual representation of the creation of the universe, including the birth and death of the dinosaurs, and, perhaps, the introduction of compassion into the world.
Never seen a merciful dino? Malick shows us one, and, amazingly, makes us (or me, at least) believe.
After these two set pieces, we make another jump in time, to Waco in the 1950s when the dead son and his two brothers were growing up under their mother’s merciful gaze and their father’s (Brad Pitt) very tough love. After we’ve witnessed the birth of literally everything, this new situation may sound banal.
But, most impressively, Malick makes this highly familiar material — 50s, small-town, mean All-American dad — feel brand new. No: ecstatic. Working with inspired Mexican cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (of Children of Men glory), Malick makes the world look new and dinosaur fresh, as if seen through the eyes of a child.
The storytelling is a bit elliptical, but surely clear enough. Pitt brings his archetypical frustrated dad character to vivid life. In the lead boy role, newcomer Hunter McCracken (what a name!) plays young Jack, (Sean Penn plays Jack as an adult) torn between his father’s semi-sadistic embrace of “nature” and his mother’s ethereal dependence on “grace.” Watching him evolve away from his mother and toward his father is deeply moving, because it feels so real.
It’s like watching how darkness comes into the world, one unhappy child at a time. The film ultimately has compassion on both Jack and his father, and even, I suppose, on God. The grieving mother finally admits that her dead son belonged to God before he belonged to her.
Critics have objected to the final scene, in which adult Jack has a consoling vision of the afterlife, and it is the film’s weakest section. But I went into it so spellbound by the rest of the film that I hardly noticed.
Back to my original question: What to call this film? Revelation seems the most apt word. We’ve seen the occasional masterpiece, but nothing quite like The Tree of Life.