Review: The Tree of Life
PLOT: TREE OF LIFE is the story of a family struggling to accept and understand each other. With a free-spirited mother the three young boys learn to grow despite a conflicted relationship with their cold and despondent father.
REVIEW: "There are two ways of life, the way of nature and the way of grace…"
Sometimes, with the birth of a child, a couple will plant a tree to grow as a part of their family. It can be a most welcome addition to mom, dad and child. In the latest feature from Terrence Malick, THE TREE OF LIFE, the acclaimed director of THE THIN RED LINE and BADLANDS offers up a moving portrait of the O’Brien family. It begins when Mrs. O’Brien (Jessica Chastain) learns that one of her three sons has died. She then calls Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt) to inform him of their tragedy. Clearly, this tragic event is a glimpse into the future as the film focuses on the family unit as it was in the 1950’s. Much like that tree, the family is constantly growing, but oftentimes they are growing apart. Malick travels through space and time during TREE OF LIFE, even going back to the earth’s creation, and yes, that includes dinosaurs and their extinction… this is a strange and beautiful experience.
After the news of the young man’s death, we get a glimpse into the mind of Jack (Sean Penn), the eldest son to the O’Brien clan. He is clearly lost in his own sadness and memory of a family’s tears and joy. He is also finding it hard to exist in a world so far from the place he grew up in. The quaint suburban town with white picket fences and freshly cut lawns is a long ways away in his disillusioned middle-aged state. He is now surrounded by towering skyscrapers and large glass buildings that seem to engulf everything that comes into contact with them. The film transitions back and forth from this world to Jack’s childhood, where he struggled with his tumultuous relationship with his father. It is in Jack’s recollection where we spend much of our time. And much like a memory (or a dream), there is little dialogue, and it is open to a myriad of translations.
TREE OF LIFE is far from your typical summer fare. While it may star Brad Pitt and Sean Penn and feature some impressive visual effects, it is true to form for a Terrance Malick feature. Avoiding the basic story structure, Malick explores such weighty issues as family, religion, the beginning and end of the world, and all that falls in-between. While it may focus on the O’Brien’s in the Fifties, during this time of All-American innocence, it delves much deeper into the psyche of this couple and their three children. The relationship between Mr. O’Brien and Jack is a complicated one, at the same time it is most assuredly very common. It is all the more complicated thanks to Jacks mother’s free-spirit which is continually crushed by her sometimes cold and cynical husband.
Malick has created something more than just a family drama, and instead he takes his story to another level by crafting what could be considered cinematic poetry. He raises the question of God, creation, and what comes next when we pass on. By choosing this typical American family, he is able to raise questions of faith, devotion and an emotional experience. Throughout the film, in a whisper, Jack, his mother and his father ask what it all means. Of course there are no easy answers as you wouldn’t find them in life either. At one point “young Jack” (Hunter McCracken) openly asks God to do a tragic deed. It is a heart wrenching moment that feels impossibly honest, yet shrouded in fantasy. In fact, you could say that the entire experience presented in TREE OF LIFE is a constant dream-like state.
For those familiar with Malick, you won’t be too surprised to find him walking the fine line between art and pretension. While another filmmaker might steer more towards the pretentious “art flick”, he is able to create an emotional bond through the movement of the camera right into the heart and soul of the performances given by the exceptional cast. However, if you are a fan of Pitt and Penn but like your “art” to be a little more linear, then this will certainly confound you as you may be asking what the hell they were smoking. Although, it is more than a little hard not to be seduced by the pure and utter gorgeousness that is evident in nearly every single shot. Whether it is Mr. O’Brien gently touching his child’s tiny little feet, or the frighteningly massive buildings which tower around an older Jack, this is an absolutely striking work of art.
With the lush and fluid cinematography courtesy of Emmanuel Lubezki and the stunning score by Alexandre Desplat, Malick’s TREE OF LIFE is a modern day masterpiece. However, if you are looking for a more straightforward film with a clear beginning, middle and end, this is not for you. TREE OF LIFE is a wistful yet sometimes somber tale that sneaks inside the classic American family to see the spoils and the stains, yet it never forgets the bliss. This is a celebration of life, with all the despair and fear that we all must face. It is also a question about what is yet to come, and how will we fit into the final days. Will we be satisfied with our choices? “Unless you love, your life will flash by…” explains Mrs. O’Brien. TREE OF LIFE is for all of you out there looking for something surreal, emotional and alive with magic, however if you wouldn’t take the time to appreciate the beauty of a field of sunflowers smothered in the glow of a bright yellow sun, this may not be for you.