Film Review: The Tree of Life (2011)
Cast: Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain, Sean Penn, Hunter McCracken
Director: Terrence Malick
The Tree Of Life is one of the most challenging films I would ever have the pleasure to review, a cinematic poem of incredible visual beauty that dares to examine our place in the Universe through the eyes of a boy growing up in Texas during the 1950s.
Only the fifth feature-length film of Terrence Malick’s long career, The Tree Of Life is as ambitious as it is personal, feeling like the director’s quest to find God in the memory of a fading childhood.
Malick’s exploration is a quiet one, using his impressive cast as vessels of emotion that speak through their eyes and through their touch, more than by the content of their words. For most of its running time, The Tree Of Life centers on Jack, the oldest son of an American southern family. He is shown as an older man reminiscing about his childhood and the loss of a brother, played by a nearly silent Sean Penn; and as a young kid, played by the very capable child actor Hunter McCracken, who seems to grow up in front of our eyes, balancing two very different parents and two younger siblings.
The relationship between the family members is mostly an unspoken one, often viewed through Jack’s very observant and impressionable eyes. The physical reactions and body language of one to another do most of the talking, especially around the strict patriarch Mr. O’Brien, in a minimalist but powerful performance by Brad Pitt, who shows vulnerability behind a thick facade of strength and poise. Pitt’s character is a man of contradictions, who demands the impossible from his children even when he’s not the best at setting the example. We learn, as the film progresses, that the disciplinarian and often unfair way in which Mr. O’Brien raises his kids stems from his dissatisfaction as a man, unable to find happiness in the many gifts life has given him. His wife, played by the radiant Jessica Chastain, is the total opposite. She appreciates life with all the good and the bad, from the way the water drips down her skin to the joy her children give her. Both parents share a belief in God and religion, though they both have conflicts about the mysterious ways of God and often question their devotion, especially when one of their teenage sons tragically dies.
The film is by no means linear. It begins when both parents find out about their son’s passing, all told by a collage of imagery that is accompanied by the saddened narration of Jessica Chastain. Soon after, the film introduces the older brother as a grown man working as an architect in Houston. He wakes to the memory of his long lost brother whose passing he commemorates by lighting a candle inside his luxurious home. This is a sobering beginning, marked by a sense of melancholia so raw and so personal that it is only appeased by the beautiful quality of Malick’s pictorial orchestration.
Once the family has been introduced, Malick becomes sidetracked. He chooses to explore the origin of life through a pictorial feast that covers, in a few minutes, millions of years worth of evolution, from the depths of the Universe and the beginning of time, passing by the Jurassic period until it comes back to Jack’s conception, the oldest son of a young and beautiful Southern couple. On its own, the sequences enhance an already impressive visual experience and set The Tree Of Life apart from most films. The influence of 2001: Space Odyssey in terms of style, theme and construction was hard to ignore. While the film offers perhaps the most elaborate collection of imagery ever put together in film, it comes off, as a whole, as a bit pretentious and unnecessary.
In essence, The Tree Of Life’s visual eccentricity masks what is, in reality, a rather simple film. Malick uses a family as a sample, one that happens to mirror much of his own experiences as a child in the South. Through their joys, values, imperfections and sadness, he begins to explore life itself as a gift of improbability, one that should be appreciated despite all of the tribulations one might face. With a powerful score dominated by beautiful classical pieces, Malick’s film believes there is a God or, at least, the presence of a higher power that offers just enough comfort to overcome all sorrow. Malick never imposes his very particular spiritual view, one that he merely suggests as an option, one that we may end up believing after watching this film. The Tree Of Life is that powerful and that beautiful, a film celebrating life by examining death and our spiritual connections, a lesson about the potential of film.
Rating: 4.5/5 (masterpiece)
♦ Candidate to the Blog of Big Ideas’ Top 250 films ♦
Next in the Blog of Big Ideas:
- Senna and I, my relationship to the idol and the film
- A review of the haunting “We Need To Talk About Kevin”
- Best Moments in Film History (6th part): Neo becomes “The One” in The Matrix