The Tree of Life (2011)
by Steve Habrat
The Tree of Life is the first film from reclusive director Terrence Malick that I have had the pleasure of seeing. I know, I know, it’s hard to believe that someone who has studied film has yet to see a film from the acclaimed and beloved director. It’s not that I have objected to seeing one of his films, I’ve just never been presented with the opportunity. I have finally had the opportunity to see The Tree of Life, the divisive and perplexing cosmic offering from Malick. I’m sure you heard about this how this film makes absolutely no sense and how it was met with mixed reviews at Cannes Film Festival despite the immense hype from the art house crowd. Most who see The Tree of Life walk away either loving the film, praising its visual artistry and contemplating the questions of life, nature, grace, and how we got here or hating the film, feeling cheated, confused, and rejecting its disjointed narrative. I fall on the side of loving the film, admiring its beauty still in the hours after I have seen it and my mind still trying to wrap itself around the point of the film.
The Tree of Life has three main plots. The first plot is the creation of the universe that is utterly breathtaking to watch. The second is set in the 1950s and follows the O’Brien family. We voyeuristically watch their upbringing of Jack (Played by Hunter McCracken) and his two younger brothers. Malick then focuses on the boy’s relations with their placid and naive mother Mrs. O’Brien (Played by Jessica Chastain) and their stern and forceful father Mr. O’Brien (Played by Brad Pitt). Early on in the film, we happen to learn that one of Jack’s younger brothers dies when he is when he is nineteen in the 1960s. The third plot is adult Jack (Played by Sean Penn) reminiscing about his days growing up and his deceased brother.
Boasting cinematography that practically knocks you out, The Tree of Life dazzles us, like many other films this year, with images and expressions over hollow CGI. Even if you find yourself loathing the film, there is still much to admire in the images. I marveled at the creation sequence and was chilled to my core by the glimpses of the afterlife. I was wrapped up in the time spent with the O’Brien’s, feeling like an invisible, otherworldly visitor floating around their home. But while the images scorch the viewer, there are also sequences that were immensely powerful in their subject matter. Jack and his friends go on a trek through nature, setting off firecrackers in a bird’s nest and tying a frog to a rocket. A scene when Mr. O’Brien lashes out at two of his sons, sending the third to his mother’s arms, sobbing and terrified is one you’ll never forget. Adult Jack reuniting with his father in the afterlife is warm and overwhelming despite their thorny relationship.
Malick’s pet project relies on its unforgettable imagery to carry it but if it weren’t for the flesh and blood performances, The Tree of Life would be nothing. This is Pitt’s film from the first frame to the last and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. He puts the fear of God in the viewer in the way he lashes out at his children. His character has so many layers; multiple viewing will be needed to pull them all away. He is a cynical man who gave up on his dreams and doesn’t fully appreciate what surrounds him. He is intimidating and stern, putting you on the edge of your seat in the way he commands Jack to return to the screen door and shut it properly several times as punishment for slamming it. Then there is Jessica Chastian’s Mrs. O’Brien, a woman in awe of everything around her and bursting with affection for her children. She preaches a message of love to her children and whispers about the sky being where God lives. When she has to convey the devastation of losing a child, there are no words to describe what Chastain pulls off. She’s a delicate flower to Pitt’s whirlwind force of nature.
And what about Sean Penn and the cosmic opening sequence? Yes, they are all there too. Penn isn’t given much to do by Malick and that is one of the downsides to the film. He wanders around in a city staring up at the sky, skyscrapers, and then in visions, he wanders the desert in a suit. For the most part, he sits around and broods. Penn really gets to flex his acting muscles when he is reunited in the afterlife with his family. The opening cosmic sequence and the closing end-of-the-world montage are sublime and feel like something ripped from a planetarium. You have to see it in HD to really get the exhaustive effect. Malick even gives us a few dinosaurs! But what do these scenes of creation have to do with the story of the O’Briens? Malick mirrors the creation sequence with the progression of the O’Brien family. The family grows, matures, evolves, and experiences overwhelming devastation just like the universe itself.
The Tree of Life takes some contemplation and it is certainly not for casual moviegoers. The film is like a Rorschach test to the viewer with Malick being the one asking us what we see. I feel that anyone who sees The Tree of Life is going to emerge with a different viewpoint on the film, but I suppose I can offer up what I thought the film was trying to convey. The film pits evolution against creationism but it never seems to ask us which side we fall on. In fact, it seems like Malick points these two theories out to us and then asks: does it really matter how we got here? He instructs us to stop, take a breath, and just look around at, as Mr. O’Brien calls it, “the glory” around us. Things will happen that disrupt our existence (anger, heartbreak, pain, grief, loss), but those should not distract us from living and loving. There was a beginning and there will be an ending but with that ending comes a reuniting. Is that reuniting spiritual or natural? That is up for you to decide. Either way, I was immersed in the cosmic voyage that Malick took me on and I will never forget it the eye-opening splendor it presents.
The Tree of Life is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.