In Which Everything Is Memory

“Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation…while the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” —Job 38: 4,7

“…a stone, a leaf, an unfound door; of a stone, a leaf, a door. And of all the forgotten faces. Naked and alone we came into exile. In her dark womb we did not know our mother’s face; from the prison of her flesh we come into the unspeakable and incommunicable prison of this earth. Which of us has known his brother? Which of us has looked into his father’s heart? Which of us has not remained forever prison-pent? Which of us is not forever a stranger and alone? O waste of loss, in the hot mazes, lost, among bright stars on this most weary unbright cinder, lost! Remembering speechlessly we seek the great forgotten language, the lost lane-end into heaven, a stone, a leaf, an unfound door. Where? When? O lost, and by the wind grieved, ghost, come back again.” —Look Homeward, Angel by Thomas Wolfe

One of these quotes opens Terrence Malick’s new film, The Tree of Life, while the other is from a work of more recent literature and could just as easily have been the film’s epigraph. Malick’s new film, possibly in progress for nearly three decades, speaks to those themes of memory, loss, time, the universe, and God in much the way that Wolfe did in his 1929 novel about growing up in Asheville, North Carolina, but expands on them greatly.

A quick word before talking about the visuals and themes of this film: While Sean Penn may not have much to do in his role as the architect whose memory is the film’s impetus (continuing, by the way, the tradition of every architect in television or film being stylish and very successful), the performances by Jessica Chastain, Brad Pitt, and Hunter McCracken as Penn’s younger self are worthy of every accolade being given to them. Pitt shows a restraint and depth not often found in his acting, Chastain is pitch-perfect in her character’s thoughts and emotions, and McCracken especially, who has the central role of the film, deserves an Oscar nomination for his performance. The actors who play McCracken’s two brothers are also standouts, and the three of them are sometimes heartwrenching in their portrayal of 1950s boys growing up under a harsh father.

However, while these actors and the plot of this film are important, they are not what this film is really about or what is most important about it. This film is about memory, time, and all of existence through the millennia. There are directors who grapple with these deep questions, but Malick may be the only living director who could pull off an accomplishment like this. He has shown himself to be a master of nonlinear, complicated films, and this one is no exception. Taking in the whole scope of existence from the beginning of the universe to present day, Malick focuses nearly a third of his two-and-a-half-hour-long film on what seems like beautiful imagery for the sake of beautiful imagery until the credits are rolling and you see where the film has just taken you. This is not a film to be seen on a television screen; this is a film you absolutely must see in the theater to experience the full effects of cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and special effects supervisor Douglas Trumbull’s visual genius here. Seen on a small screen, it may not even be a pleasurable film to watch.

Malick’s most recent work may be hard to follow and sit through for some; it is challenging, strange, wonderful, and complicated. But as much as it is those things, it is so much more. It is a prayer, a deep sigh of a film, a meditation on love, loss, faith, questions, and existence itself. It is a film to make the viewer feel connected to the universe from its beginning and wonder about these kinds of deep questions about God and humanity. 

The Tree of Life is a masterpiece, make no mistake. It is stunningly beautiful in a way that outshines the spectacular effects at the end of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and all-encompassing in a way that discusses the entirety of the universe’s existence. It is the kind of thing that you might see in a film twice in your life if you’re lucky. It is a brilliant statement from a visionary director who poured his soul into this film.

It is also, I think, the most important film I’ve ever seen in theaters, and in my opinion the greatest work of film art I have ever seen.

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