I’ve had nearly two months to digest The Tree of Life, a metaphysical exploration of the dualities of man’s nature, and yet I’m still wrestling with my reaction to the film. I liked it quite a bit, of this I’m sure. At least, I think I’m sure. There remains a nagging suspicion that maybe my affinity for the film is a reaction that this is a challenging and thought-provoking release in the throes of the summer movie season, one that doesn’t have a $200 million budget attached to it and/or a number at the end of its title.
Written and directed by brilliant and maddening director Terrence Malick, The Tree of Life is a mirror of its maker. Visually, it’s cinematic poetry, a sumptuous work of artistic beauty and form with striking and puzzling images of the universe, Earth, nature, and cityscapes, and what may or may not be the afterlife. The Tree of Life testifies to the unrivaled power of awe that comes from film on the big screen.
But as a drama, the movie is leisurely, disjointed, and unnecessarily complex. The serene imagery is adverse to the confounding and confusing plot, what there is of it.
The entire premise is a meditative examination of the human soul along with side excursions into faith and fate. Are we Darwinian beasts, genetically conditioned through eons of evolution that the strongest survive? Or, have we advanced into a more noble state of consciousness, with self-sacrifice and unconditional love as our new DNA?
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The guinea pig in Malick's thematic meandering is Jack, a conflicted boy (played by Hunter McCracken) whose childhood choices determine the kind of man he becomes (Sean Penn plays the adult version of Jack).
For simplicity's sake, Malick's script offers him two yin and yang role models, his parents. Mr. O'Brien (Brad Pitt) preaches a self-survival outlook, cautious, guarded, and when necessary, predatory. Mrs. O'Brien (Jessica Chastain) exemplifies caring, nurturing, giving, and sacrifice. The two are at odds, waging a quiet war to save their son from the other. The conflict is not unlike the two sergeants in Oliver Stone's Platoon, as they vie for the soul of an army private.
Jack is at first repulsed by his overly strict and occasionally violent father, who is bitter at his own missed opportunities and misfortune. Yet the son craves his father's love, and comes to embrace his father's survivalist views.
It's his younger brother, Steve (Tye Sheridan), a caring, artistic soul, who ultimately gravitates to their mother.
Malick gives depth to the parents, particularly Mr. O'Brien, a musician with a love of classical music. The presumption, then, is that the father was at one point more like son Steve but was hardened by life's failures and crushing disappointment as coping mechanisms. It's difficult to say for certain since much of what little dialogue is in the film is narrative reflections by Jack or his parents.
Jack as an adult has to live with his choices while becoming increasingly disillusioned with the world around him.
With so much of the film relying on expressions and gestures rather than dialogue, The Tree of Life isn't for the faint of heart. Pitt and Chastain lead a strong cast, but there is little star power in this movie, including Penn, whose role amounts to slightly more than a cameo. And Malick has found two wonderful young actors in McCracken and Sheridan, who bring depth and freshness to the screen.
The true star of the film is cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who worked with Malick on 2005's The New World. Lubezki keeps the film visually alluring and somehow makes disparate images of the big bang, dinosaurs, and an archetypal American family linked in one film seem far less pretentious than it should be.
Is The Tree of Life a great film? I'm still not sure. But after a month to think about it I can safely say it's not a film for everyone -- especially those who prefer their movies to be easily and quickly digested.
THE TREE OF LIFE
Written and directed by Terrence Malick. A Fox Searchlight release, playing at Rave Levis Commons. Rated PG-13 for some thematic material. Running time: 138 minutes.
Critic's Rating: * * * *
Mr. O'Brien .......... Brad Pitt
Jack .......... Sean Penn
Mrs. O'brien .......... Jessica Chastain
Contact Kirk Baird at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6734.