Rated PG-13 138 min.
Summary: Winner of the Canne Film Festival’s Palm d’Or, The Tree of Life is a film, written and directed by Terrence Malick, focusing on a family from Texas, set in the 1950’s.
My Review: Where to begin... Quite frankly, this film is in fact, three films, if you are to intelligently dissect its contents and articulate respectively its qualities, and in my opinion, its valid but failed attempt to explain life and our relationship with God.
The opening of the film starts with a quotation from the book of Job and offers very little dialogue, only overlays of whispers while we watch a mother receive a telegram, who then becomes stricken with sadness. She then places a call to her husband at work, who also nearly falls to his knees in despair with the images around him swirling in confusion and sorrow. You have an inclination that only death could bring this type of behavior, and the scene is very brief, but confirmed, when the story suddenly flashes forward, and we see Sean Penn, waking up, his face pained in depression. His wife places flowers on an alter within their home and a candle is lit. It is not until Penn’s character is at work, do we hear his conversation on the telephone with his father. It is apparent that it is the anniversary of Penn’s brother’s death. The short flashback and flashforward, equate to the length of suffering the family has succumbed to, and the cause of their deep pain.
But then the film becomes surrealistic, and a good portion of the story is then dedicated to the artistic images; a chronological order of the beginning of existence, from a gas flame, all the way through to the dinosaurs. Because of the length of this tangent and alternative, explanative of creation, I (and my husband) became restless, and literally had to fight from falling asleep. When I had almost reached my breaking point, and was quite tempted to get up and leave, the film then reverts to traditional storytelling and we then re-meet the same couple from the beginning who received the devastating telegram.
The story chronicles Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain, known only as the O’Briens, from the time they give birth to their first son, Jack (Sean Penn), to quickly after, their other two sons, with the film then arriving to the age of adolescences for the three boys. It is here, that we come to learn the depth of the relationships, mainly due to the borderline abusive behavior and strictness from the father. Jack, over the course of his tender years becomes conflicted, wanting nothing more than his father’s openly love and approval and the convoluted feelings he experiences, conceives ambivalence towards his middle brother, whom he feels that his father favors. Though the father loves his children, we can see that his parenting skills, either indicative of the era, or harshly prescribed by his own doing, distances the children from him. But faint whispers from the middle brother (whom we come to learn is the one that died), and ultimately, Jack, help us understand that through all their pain, is a soul that searches. As Jack points out, his father struggles and wrestles within him, and in a moment of clarity, comes to understand the inner ghost that haunts him, has a name but as a child, he did not know it. Quite understandably, this is the best part of the film and the acting by Brad Pitt is Oscar worthy. But in addition, the young child actors who portray the three boys do such a marvelous job, so intense with an earnest innocence, that you can feel every tormented emotion the children display. We had only wished this section of the story, had indeed, consumed the plot in its entirety. And just when you find the connection with the characters, as the father learns that he has lost his job and must relocate...
The last portion of the film filtrates to an existential view of death and acceptance of God and his mercy on his children. It is imaginative, and picturesque, but unappreciated by the time you get to this point. At 2.5 hours, I just could not absorb the poetic aspect of the interpretation and felt completely drained by the finality of this journey.
In the end, Tree of Life did not meet my expectations, and had the film shortened its Stanley Kubrick aspect, could have sustained my interest during the long haul in its attempts to placate our fear and lack of understanding, as a whole, with respect to our relationship with God. As I stated, I certainly can handle imagery, interwoven modestly in to a story, and very much loved the portion that actually allowed us to study the family and its core, but the existentialistic view on life, felt comical at times and just did not seem to correlate. Had I gone to a science museum at night, laid back watching the stars, listening to the Philharmonic softly filter through speakers above my head; then those weird portions of the film would have been acceptable. But to sit through this film, the way it was pieced together, became torturous, and in all honesty, made me sad that I could not fall in love with the film. I would be lying if I said I didn’t struggle watching, Tree of Life, so unfortunately, I have to give it two stars.
Cast and Credit:
Written and directed by Terrance Malick
Brad Pitt-Mr. O’Brien
Jessica Chastain-Mrs. O’Brien
Hunter McCracken-young Jack