Watching the film on opening night in Austin with a packed audience (many of whom worked in some capacity on the film, which was shot in Smithville), it was not unlike taking in the grand spectacle of The Lion King on Broadway for the first time as a young child. It is an overwhelmingly emotional experience.
How many people will see this film and watch in awe as memories of their own childhood flash before their eyes? I know I did. The story concerns Jack, an eleven year-old boy raised in Texas in the 1950s whose wondrous and carefree childhood slowly gives way to a more troubling, complicated understanding of human nature as he loses his innocence. You can see where I might find some similarities (as long as we’re swapping the 1950s for the 1990s). As he grows into a disillusioned adult (Sean Penn), he struggles to come to terms with the two ways through life: the way of human nature, fierce will and determination, epitomized by his father (Brad Pitt, in a hauntingly understated performance); and the way of love, compassion and grace, epitomized by his mother (Jessica Chastain).
But Malick’s movie extends back to the beginning of time, offering us beautiful sequences depicting the creation of the world that call to mind similar scenes from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). I’ve often wondered how audiences would respond to 2001 if that film were released in theaters today. The answer has come. Our generation now has our own 2001 – a mystifying, extraordinarily ambitious epic that forgoes narrative filmmaking almost entirely. But as film critic Roger Ebert notes in his review of the film, 2001: A Space Odyssey “[lacks] Malick’s fierce evocation of human feeling” present in The Tree of Life. Indeed, this is a film driven by small, powerful human moments. Pitt, Chastain and Penn’s performances are oftentimes completely wordless, but they linger in the mind days after having seen the picture. As much as I love Kubrick’s film, the same cannot be said for its characters.
This is a film that requires patience and respect for Malick’s vision. There were boos and hisses from some audiences when 2001 was first released in 1968, and The Tree of Life has received similar reactions (even at the Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Palme d’Or). But these are films that live beyond their audiences, masterpieces that aren’t easily digestible for the masses.
I’ve seen the film twice now, and both times the ending – a glimpse of everyone in Penn’s life coming together and journeying together to a sort of afterlife – is equal parts beguiling and soul-stirring. I left The Tree of Life full of hope – not just spiritual hope, or the hope of someday understanding all things – but hope for the future of cinema.