The Tree of Life is only the fifth film by writer/director Terrence Malick. However, with those five films he has positioned himself as one of the most brilliant and groundbreaking filmmakers working today. His fan base is rabidly loyal, while critics and other filmmakers have only the highest esteem for the auteur who pushes cinematic limitations further and further with each project.
While it is one of the most visually stunning films ever produced, The Tree of Life is not for everyone. There is no plot, per se, and I would even argue that one could not accurately call it a film because it lacks so many of the conventionally essential elements. Make no mistake, though; it is a work of art and one of the most beautiful works I have ever been lucky enough to witness. I don’t say this hyperbolically to make a point (I save that for Christopher Nolan films). Each person who watches Malick’s opus will have a wholly different experience, perspective and reaction to what they see.
The marketing materials and trailers will tell you that the film is about a man, Jack (Sean Penn), who reflects on his childhood growing up in a small Texas town in the 1950s. His father (Brad Pitt) is a strict authoritarian who loves his three sons dearly, but can’t bring himself to show it properly. He believes that their every flaw or mistake is a direct result of his poor parenting or guidance and he reacts violently when his expectations are not met.
Jack’s mother (Jessica Chastain) is the embodiment of love, affection and selflessness. Her love for her sons grows each time their father reprimands them, almost as if her dedication feeds off their fear and his anger. She is their protector and his captive.
Malick makes the viewer a part of the O’Brien family by not only letting us in on their day-to-day life and relationships, but by allowing us to hear their innermost thoughts and prayers. The dialogue in the film is sparse, to say the least. We experience the family’s turmoil through the looks they give one another and how each person changes their behavior given those who surround them.
The O’Briens, though, are only an infinitesimal part of the larger picture that Malick creates through breathtakingly beautiful and magnificent images. Through some incredibly innovative and unique visual effects, Malick shows us the birth of the universe, its growth and development and the appearance of life on Earth. We see the planet as completely inhospitable at one point and then slowly turn into a lush, life-sustaining utopia where dinosaurs roam freely. Malick worked closely with Douglas Trumball who created some of the visual effects in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. The influence of 2001 can be seen very clearly, almost as an extension of what that film was trying to do.
In addition to our place in the universe, Malick is also fascinated by how each person’s faith is affected (or not affected) by what they experience. A very convincing case could be made for either this being a very atheistic condemnation of the belief in God or an example of how one’s faith is what is most important when facing life’s most difficult situations.
The Tree of Life is a philosophical work that inherently asks more questions than it answers, demanding repeat viewings and discussions to fully understand the various themes and ideas Malick has layered throughout the film.
The film runs 138 minutes and is rated PG-13.
Grade: A +