No film has ever been so evocative of a childhood: walking on cans tied with thick string; torturing small amphibia and reptiles with cherry bombs and firecrackers; running chest forward, arms outstretched, into mosquito-killing DDT clouds. These were the long, languorous days of southern summers before play dates and gated communities and the expectation of kidnappers and child molesters around every corner. Without standard plot or dialogue, the observer, like the analyst, is drawn into memory with Jack (Sean Penn), invited to lean in toward his experience of sprinkler drops on the skin, ligustrum hedge tops on the fingertips, or the jarring, contemptuous shouting of a father at a mother. One immerses oneself, the visual and auditory so penetrating as to be tactile. It is dream-like, hallucinogenic, poetical.
A nipple. An eye socket. A crater on the moon. Mud pots and phosphorescent pools. Molten lava and microbials. A nipple. The protruding umbilicus of a pregnant woman. Jupiter’s moon. What do we make of creation? Of the tree of life? This film intimates the interconnectedness of all creation. But the thread of loss and trauma flies in the face of connectedness, aggravated when one suffers in isolation, disconnecting us from the fabric of life.
Jack as a middle edged man remains connected to his childhood in the drops of water and the drops of sunlight of his glass-and-steel grownup world. His luminous mother (Jessica Chastain) had urged him to “love everything.”
The Tree of Life, written and directed by Terrence Malick (Badlands, Days of Heaven, and The Thin Red Line) is a wonder, visually, and its soundtrack magnificent. That Malick was a philosophy major and a Rhodes scholar is no surprise. But Malick must be a connoisseur of great music as well, with soundtrack by Alexandre Desplat, connecting Mahler, Bach, Smetena’s Die Moldau, Holst’s The Planets, Berlioz’ Requiem, Bach, and Brahms. The mystical ‘Tree of Life’ in religion, philosophy, mythology, connects all things in spirit and evolution. It brings eternal life. Malick ambitiously illustrates this conceptual interconnectedness of the ‘Tree of Life’ in his film thusly named, juxtaposing it with a singular, 1950s, Texas family, the O’Briens. Its eldest son Jack (Hunter McCracken) questions, in whispered voiceover, God or the universe and the meaning of existence. How Malick coaxed such a veridical performance from McCracken and Laramie Eppler as R.L. is a marvel,and the cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki, exquisite. This is the best picture of 2011, or, perhaps,ever.