Directed by Terrence Malick
Starring Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain, Hunter McCracken
Averaging one film every ten years, new Terrence Malick (Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line, The New World) is always highly anticipated. His most recent effort, The Tree of Life, was probably the most polarizing film of 2011. Many filmgoers heralded it as one of the year’s best for its ambition and its beauty, and just as many despised it for its complexity and pretension. One theater even posted warning signs to inform guests that The Tree of Life is a “uniquely visionary and deeply philosophical film from an auteur director. It does not follow a traditional, linear narrative approach to storytelling. [The theater] encourages patrons to read up on the film before choosing to see it... and know that the [theater] has a NO-REFUND policy.” I guess there were a lot of folks who base their film choices on the celebrity of its star (they should blame Brad Pitt for their bad experience, I suppose). When I was one of those theatergoers last summer, I fell somewhere in the middle; it had me perplexed, no doubt, but it was such an amazing achievement that I couldn’t help but be impressed. Its naysayers’ critiques had some validity, but its champions also made fair points. A year after my first Tree of Life experience, I was ready to give it another look to see how it grew on me. Surprisingly, most of my initial opinion remained intact upon a second viewing.
Giving The Tree of Life a quick plot summary is a difficult task but I shall try. The film revolves around the memories of a middle-aged man (Sean Penn), as he reflects upon his life growing up in the 1950s on the anniversary of his younger brother’s death in Vietnam. This reflection leads him to also think about life’s origins (from the Big Bang and Earth’s cooling crust to single-cell organisms and dinosaurs, until his very own birth) and what the afterlife will look like. Malick weaves these heavy themes through ethereal whispers and images of family and majestic scenes of nature, with the links connecting the narrative hard to distinguish.
Clearly The Tree of Life sets out to accomplish a lot, and parts of it work great while others feel gratuitous. That was the feeling I had after both viewing of this film. When the film narrows its focus to the family, with Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain as the parents of three young boys, The Tree of Life truly shines. Hunter McCracken portrays Jack, the oldest son (Sean Penn’s character in the film’s more modern times). These scenes of childhood are so engrossing, with the camera moving around in a dreamlike quality providing only snapshots of a time long gone. Every formative moment in young Jack’s life is included. Malick beautifully and artfully visualizes growing up, with innocuous moments often providing the most significance. But the words are mere whispers and the images feel surreal. One cannot help but reflect on their own past while they watch The Tree of Life, thinking of their own personal snapshots of childhood. It is an enriching experience.
As Jack gets older and develops further, the film’s opening line gains great significance. The film dissects life into two perspectives, the “way of grace” and the “way of nature.” Throughout the film we see how Jack’s two parents symbolize each approach. Living through grace involves the acceptance of being slighted and acceptance of insults and injury, like the mother character. However, one living in the “way of grace” will always be loved. On the other hand, nature only wants to please itself and have others please them, finding reasons to be unhappy. With the father’s ambitions falling short, he is living the “way of nature” and utterly unhappy, resulting in a stern parenting style that leaves him unloved. Hunter McCracken’s performance shows a boy who wants to live in grace but is stuck with too much nature in his soul. Perhaps it was the younger brother killed in Vietnam with the grace that the world lost out on. Through Jack’s memories of adolescence, we can see what led him toward the way of nature and sadness he feels as an adult, when Penn takes over the role.
Unfortunately, Terrence Malick has more on his mind than the process of growing up into the adult you will become. The Tree of Life tackles even larger issues, which is where I took issue with the film. Most memorably, Malick chronicles life on Earth in an extended 20-minute section. As life transforms from the Big Bang to dinosaurs to babies, we are awed by his craftsmanship and ambition. This sequence is incredible filmmaking, but takes you out of the film. I went from being engrossed in the film to just thinking about the director’s technical capabilities. It is impressive, but hurts the film. Malick also turns his attention to the afterlife with Sean Penn meeting the people of his past on a rocky beach. This sequence fits in which the aesthetics of the larger picture a little better but still feels awkward. When we are watching the kids interact and the parents figure out how to raise them, The Tree of Life nears masterpiece status. Holding it back from that pedestal are the times it reaches to be more important, leaving it cold and difficult.
I cannot stress enough how much I love the childhood scenes (which admittedly is the majority of the film). Malick captures being a little boy in way that is timeless and mesmerizing. He is able to highlight the certain sounds and images that stick out in a child’s memories. The music of the film, often the classical pieces loved by the parents, provides a wonderful soundtrack weaving these memories together. The Tree of Life is no doubt a display of virtuosic filmmaking, and Malick's achievement is admirable. If only the scope was narrowed slightly, Malick’s achievement could be event greater.
If one knows what they are in store for, I would highly recommend The Tree of Life, if only for just the new filmic experience. The direction is amazing, the performances are great, and it is so beautiful to look at. If you can get past the sequences that take you out of the experience, the reflections on childhood alone are worthy of viewing. Healthy and intelligent debate will surely arise after you watch, and that is always a good result.
Mark it 7.