It’s hard to deny that “The Tree of Life”, Terrence Malick’s first film since 2005′s “The New World”, is destined to be a polarizing movie. I’ve seen it called pretentious, self-indulgent, and a muddled exercise in tedium. But I had a much different reaction. I found it to be cinematic poetry. A profound and deeply moving picture that’s cryptic yet bold and thought-provoking. It’s a challenging meditation on life, family, and God. It’s a film that doesn’t revolve around a tight, concentrated narrative. Instead it feels more like an observation of everything from the creation of the world according to Malick to the life struggles of an ordinary family in 1950′s Texas. It moves at a stylish but deliberate pace and this is sure to drive some people crazy. But I feel it rewards the patient viewer and I found myself drawn in by the artistry and emotion of the film.
In the first few minutes of the movie we see Mrs. O’Brien, (Jessica Chastain) as she is receiving a letter stating her 19 year old son is dead. She calls Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt) at work to let him know the tragic news. The film then moves to present day as we are introduced to Jack (Sean Penn) the oldest of the O’Brien’s three sons. Jack comes across as an emotional wreck and we find out that he is still devastated by the loss of his younger brother. He notices a tree being planted in a small construction area which triggers an extended flashback to his childhood.
Jack’s childhood revolves around something said at the first of the film. “There are two ways through life, the way of nature and the way of grace. You have to choose which one you will follow”. Jack’s dad is a man of nature. He’s a short-tempered and strict father whose hypocrisies don’t go unnoticed by his children. He has a cynical and hardened view of the world and recognizes success as beating the world at it’s own game. Jack’s mom is a woman of grace. She sees the world as a beautiful place and her faith fuels her loving and trusting nature. She’s quiet and gentle and her love of life is unquestioned even through life’s struggles. The question is which path will young Jack follow?
As we watch Jack and his brothers grow up in 1950′s Waco, Texas, Malick gives us some of the most grounded and natural portrayals of early adolescence that you will find on film. Young Jack, played by the fantastic Hunter McCracken, has a great relationship with his brothers but always finds himself falling short in his father’s eyes. There are several painfully potent scenes that convey this and over time it leads to some disturbing changes in Jack. It’s heart-wrenching enough to watch this young boy flirt with self-destruction but witnessing his inner struggles with his actions is even more despairing. We hear him in voiceover ask ”What have I done?” He painfully states ”What I want to do I can’t do. I do what I hate.” It’s pretty weighty material and Malick doesn’t treat it halfheartedly.
Malick takes the O’Briens through trials and tragedies but he uses them to explore forgiveness, reconciliation, and peace. He’s not afraid to ask tough questions or address things such as existence, spirituality, and the afterlife. But this gets at another thing that makes this film special. It can speak to different people in so many different ways. Whether it be the spiritual subtext or the strained family dynamic, Malick takes something that is obviously deeply personal and touches the audience in a wide variety of ways.
“The Tree of Life” is a technical masterpiece and it’s impossible to talk about this film without mentioning it. Emmanuel Lubezki’s gorgeous cinematography should garner instant Oscar consideration. In many ways ”The Tree of Life” is more lyrical than dramatic therefore many scenes find their strength in imagery and camera work other than any form of dialogue. Many of Lubezki’s gorgeous shots carry more dramatic and emotional weight than almost any acted sequence I’ve seen all year. Alexandre Desplat’s brilliant score hits at just the right times during the film, weaving itself between Malick’s signature scenes featuring nature’s ambiance.
This is a unique film which calls for a unique approach by the actors. With the absence of a more precise narrative, the performances are structured around Malick’s vision. Pitt is fantastic in a conservative and more restrained performance. Chastain is graceful and has a subtle elegance. But it’s McCracken who steals the show with his authentic and measured performance. He sells every seen he’s in and Malick uses him perfectly.
“The Tree of Life” requires the audience to accept it for what it is. It’s bold and unwavering and while it could be misconstrued as a vanity project, it’s a film that’s clearly close to Malick’s heart. It most certainly isn’t for everyone, but I found myself immediately drawn in and unable to take my eyes off the visual splendor and mesmerizing meditation. It’s easy to be put off by things such as length and the lack of a focused story. But I implore audiences to judge “The Tree of Life” for what’s it’s meant to be. It touched me in many ways and it’s a film that with stick with me for a long time.