The Tree of Life
(M) Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, Jessica Chastain
Director Terence Malick has directed only five films in his career but gained a reputation as an auteur and a recluse, never having been interviewed or making himself available for comment.
So every one of his films comes with a certain set of expectations.
From its grandiose opening images and Bible verse from Job 38 (“Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?”), the viewer is assured The Tree of Life is a work of great importance.
The film is a collection of painterly images and fragments, structured like the movements in a symphony, which are loosely held together with the story of the O’Briens, mother, father and three sons. It particularly focuses on the past and present of one son, Jack (played by Hunter McCracken and Sean Penn).
It is not evident why the bulk of the film is set in the ’50s, but perhaps this forms part of the autobiographical nature of the film for Terence Malick.
Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain are Mr and Mrs O’Brien.
The O’Briens are an interesting family. Dad is a hard taskmaster requiring silence at the table and to be called Father rather than Dad — he is described as nature, the force to be reckoned with.
Mum is an ethereal creature who whimsically floats (literally in one surreal scene) around the house and is supposedly the embodiment of all things graceful. Their three boys are tearaway types given to bouts of violence with a ball bearing gun and strapping frogs to rocket launchers.
In true, non-linear, narrative form, the film flits between the golden era and the present where Jack O’Brien (Sean Penn) grapples with life and his place in it.
Often the film is narrated in fragments of whispery voiceover by Mother, Son and Father.
Not only does Malick focus on the human actors, he bookends his symphony with nothing less than the beginnings and end of the universe, from its cosmic opening seconds through the mitochondrial beginnings of life itself — all the better to put the O’Brien family life, love and grief into perspective.
This film has many interesting ideas about the nature of life and God and our place in God’s universal order — it even touches on the nature of sin. Although Christ is absent in the film, it has undeniably been informed by Malick’s Episcopalian background.
But — and here’s the but — the film is an impenetrable pastiche of images and ideas that will more likely have viewers nodding off than transfixed.
Yes, it asks the big questions, but often its sweeping statements about grace and nature, innocence and violence, nature and spirit, love and life, feel underdeveloped like the whispery narration that punctuates the film.
Familial themes will resonate with those brave enough to sit through its (often glacial) 138 minutes and Malick’s undeniable talent as an artist holds attention for a while.
In the end, though, it’s the lack of engagement with (and at times understanding of) the subject matter that may leave some feeling like they’ve been left out in the metaphysical cold.