“Do you trust me,” he whispers. “Will you travel this road with me from the foundations of the earth, to life bursting forth from the womb, to that final doorway? I will tell you the truth, if you enter in with me.” With these questions, Terrence Malick asks us to step into his lavish new film The Tree of Life. He asks such questions up front because he knows some people aren’t committed to the journey that is to follow. Those looking to munch popcorn, turn off their brain, and take a nice little stroll with Brad Pitt may not make it. And many in my theater did not. As volcanoes erupted, dinosaurs roamed, and cells split, the audience thinned. They did not trust. Sadly, by bowing out early, these folks missed a deeply moving story of love and one son’s battle with good and evil.
The Tree of Life showcases the best that cinema has to offer. Some will call Mr. Malick’s story of life “self-indulgent,” and they may have a strong case for such a claim. After all, the film does begin with a thirty minute Nature Channel-like display of the creation of the world. No doubt, these beginning scenes are truly beautiful in scope with a matching soundtrack rich with emotion. Yet, they feel off kilter from that which follows. I would not say “disconnected” per se, only that the middle act displaying the life of a young man battling with the nature of his heart is powerful enough to stand on its own. In fact, I would suggest that the beginning, for all its raw inertia and energy, pales in comparison with the subtle power of the second act. It was there that I found my eyes moist as I journeyed with our young protagonist to discover me in him. It was on that uncertain road where I also felt Mr. Malick’s arm of grace slide gently around my shoulder.
I would challenge any cinephile to name a film that so succeeds, as does The Tree of Life, in displaying mercy and love on the basis of visual images alone. While it may be unsettling for some, Mr. Malick’s lack of dialogue and insistence on conveying much through glance, touch, and angle are key ingredients in his success here. He is a genius at wringing out every last drop of story from his frames. Also, by not harnessing his young actors to verbose language or an overabundance of dialogue, he grants them freedom to be—good, bad, or otherwise. Mr. Malick has learned something many filmmakers have yet to grasp—that words are a poor substitute for pictures.
The film’s production values are strong with brilliant cinematography, a deeply moving score, and first-rate acting. Sean Penn’s talent is wasted in the film and his scenes at the end make a strange bookend to the creation story at the beginning. Nonetheless, the meat in the middle is a premium cut . . . a true gourmet meal for those with a defined palate.
Do you trust me when I tell you that you must see The Tree of Life? You probably won’t like the beginning or ending any more than I did. But, there in the middle, you’ll be grabbed by the chest and led to a place where no other summer blockbuster will take you.