Film Review: “The Tree of Life”

by Jason LeRoy on June 3, 2011

starring: Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain, Sean Penn, Hunter McCracken, Laramie Eppler, Tye Sheridan, Fiona Shaw

written and directed by: Terrence Malick

MPAA: Rated PG-13 for some thematic material.

The Tree of Life is a work of uncompromising, occasionally indulgent, cumulatively overwhelming cinematic art. It is simultaneously cosmic and intimate in scope, so staggering and personal in its ambition that it practically dares the viewer to find a simple way to describe it. By the time it has concluded, you’ll feel like you’ve witnessed nothing less than the birth of the universe itself. It is only the fifth film in the 40-year career of maverick writer/director Terrence Malick (Badlands, Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line, The New World), and let’s just say he really out-Malicks himself this time.

The film begins with one of the great Biblical smackdowns, a quote from the Book of Job, in which God challenges Job’s lamentations by responding, “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” From here, we enter the lives of a Texas family, the O’Briens, as they receive the news that one of their sons has died. We experience this death primarily through Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt), Mrs. O’Brien (Jessica Chastain), and Jack (Sean Penn), their adult son. The film lives in the minds and memories of its characters, so we experience nothing resembling a linear storyline. Rather, we hear whispered fragments of thoughts and prayers as rapturous imagery flickers on the screen.

The O’Briens ask “Where were you, God?” And Malick, looking to the Job scripture for inspiration, responds on God’s behalf. And so, in perhaps the most unexpected and audacious flashback in film history, Malick fleshes out the Job quote by depicting…well, the laying of the foundations of the earth.  I will not attempt to put words to the images Malick and his visual effects team conjures in this lengthy sequence. Writing about this movie is already daunting enough. As he depicts the roots (of the tree!) of life on earth, he shows us a surprising moment of what resembles compassion between two creatures. Through this, he begins exploring one of his main ideas—there are two ways through life: the way of nature, and the way of grace.

And so, after the extended opening movement in this sprawling symphony of a film, we travel back (forward?) in time to the 1950s, in the Texas home of the O’Briens. We watch as Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien bear and rear their three sons, Jack (Hunter McCracken), R.L. (Laramie Eppler), and Steve (Tye Sheridan). Eventually Jack settles into the role of our protagonist, and we begin to wonder to what extent the entire film is just his contemplation as an adult, looking back on his life and trying to make meaning from it.

Each parent explicitly represents a different path in the “two ways through life” concept. Mr. O’Brien is the way of nature: cruel, brutal, tough, with no pretended niceness. He teaches his sons how to fight, and tells them you can’t succeed in this world by being good. Mrs. O’Brien, of course, is the way of grace: warm, compassionate, encouraging. She is an endlessly patient source of love and light, always ready to welcome her children with a smile and an embrace while her husband is doggedly trying to make men out of them. This isn’t exactly profound stuff, despite the profundity of the filmmaking style. Much of the film’s character development seems cribbed from Developmental Psych 101. This continues as Jack begins experiencing puberty, i.e. the death of his own innocence. In his rebellion and acting out, Jack begins to hate his bullish father, even as he feels himself turning into him. He also begins to despise his mother for her weakness and envy his younger brothers for their innocence.

This, then, is one of the film’s main themes: trying to understand and find peace with the role of the Father in each creation story. Because this film has two creation stories, one for Jack and one for life itself, and in each there is conflict in the relationship with the Father and the struggle for reconciliation. But of course it is also about that cosmic balance, of God, both father and mother, of life, both nature and grace, and how these “two ways through life” are twin threads running through all that exists.

The Tree of Life makes itself damn near impossible to evaluate against any conventional film criteria. Its concerns are not story-driven, but rather experiential and impressionistic, spiritual and cerebral. One thing I can say with certainty is that it is photographed to within an inch of its life by the great Emmanuel Lubezki. If he doesn’t finally win an Oscar for his work on this film, there is simply no justice in the universe and I’ll be forced to revisit the whole “foundation of the earth” sequence for solace and perspective.

This is not really an actors’ film, since actors seem rather incidental in Malick’s films, often taking a backseat to the visuals. But Pitt and Chastain both make vivid, lasting impressions as the parents. Non-actor Hunter McCracken is startling and brilliantly authentic as young Jack. Penn, however, is barely in the film. I get the sense that much of his material was left on the cutting room floor. As was the case with The New World, I can only assume that Malick has a longer director’s cut that we will see on the film’s Blu-ray/DVD release. At least I hope so, because The New World made more sense with the added footage.

Terrence Malick has meticulously crafted a monumental, once-in-a-lifetime cinematic experience like none other. It is certainly not for all tastes. It contains not a single shred of cynicism, which of course brings out the bitch in a lot of critics (which I’m trying to suppress). At times it borders a bit too much on arty-precious, with maybe one too many “Look, a butterfly!” visuals combined with whispered voice-overs saying things like, “Was I false to you?” It is almost closer to an art installation than a narrative film. Nothing really happens, and yet everything happens. It is a towering and singular achievement that must be seen to be believed.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Ramona Lee December 6, 2011 at 9:51 pm

yes i agree 🙂

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