The Tree of Life is a movie in the same way Moby Dick is a novel; that is, it shares just enough structural elements to be a recognizable part of the genre, but in a lot of ways it takes the category itself and blows it up from the inside out. If that doesn't sound appealing, don't put yourself through the 139 minutes of Terence Malick's ethereal dreamscape. I mean, we don't get anything resembling a coherent narrative until roundabout minute 50, and even then, the designation is shaky. Though I was thoroughly captivated throughout, I don't think I could tell you more than one character's name with any confidence.
However, the film is nonetheless deeply interested in character, in the human experience--specifically, why do we suffer? Where does cruelty come from? To badly paraphrase T.S. Eliot, in the face of the inevitability of death, not only the deaths of those we love but that of the planet, what peace? Much like a movie I loved, A Serious Man, Tree of Life takes the Book of Job as its organizing principle. Much like a movie I loved but everyone else hated, The Fountain, it seemed to me that Tree of Life tries to cinematize mourning--framing, though the generic constraints of film as well as the edges of the screen itself, an inward process that often escapes articulation.
One line from the preview that I found eye-rollingly portentous--"Mother . . . Father . . . Always you wrestle inside me," delivered in voiceover, accompanied by a shot of the King of Pain himself, Sean Penn--actually is quite moving in the film, not least because the line, along with the purported argument of the film itself, is ironically undone through the way the "conflict" is represented. The Mother (Jessica Chastain, aka "grace") is positioned in contrast to The Father (Brad Pitt, aka "nature," aka the role he should be nominated for instead of Moneyball). The Son (Penn) feels he must choose between a way of being in the world that is liberated and sensually awake and one that is red in tooth and claw, governed by a cruel "survival of the fittest" ethos. However, this dichotomy is proven to be illusory. His father, though mouthing, and, in the more disturbing moments of the film, enacting, the kind of crude social Darwinism aligned with "nature," he is shown to be fallen from, and grasping towards, "grace" himself. He wanted to be a musician, and the music he plays, though harsh, is inescapably beautiful, as is the kind of loving touch he is capable of bestowing on his sons, even though he often chooses not to. (As an aside, this is the first DVD I've ever seen that included a plea from the filmmakers to "play it loud"--do so; the music is haunting and thematically resonant. There's a reason Smetana's "Moldau" is so prominently featured.)
And here's where the dinosaurs come in. Yes, the rumors are true--there are dinosaurs. A sequence early in the film shows a wounded dinosaur being threatened, but ultimately spared, but a stronger predator. Then, spoiler alert, an asteroid destroys their ecosystem. But, crucially, there is that one moment that can only be explained through an empathic mercy that connects these two living beings. It is the same indescribable something (call it God, call it love, call it spirit) that ultimately allows for a reconciliation between Penn and Pitt, between grace and nature; or, rather, a recognition that they were never estranged in the first place. While watching, I was reminded of a quote from Annie Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek: "In nature I find grace tangled in a rapture with violence; I find an intricate landscape whose forms are
fringed in death." And that's the good news. The Tree of Life gets that and puts it on the screen in a way I found incredibly, unbelievably, right on.