CAPSULE: Mystical and yet holding a solid drama, TREE OF LIFE is the chronicle of a 1950s family living near Waco, Texas, placed in a context of all life going back to the creation of the world and later the age of the dinosaurs all to the tune of Wagner's "Tristan und Isolde". What appear to be hundreds of apparently random inconsequential shots, presented in almost stream of consciousness; of the texture of everyday family life eventually add up to a plot both sentimental and bitter. A father, played by Brad Pitt, transforms from loving to strict to abusive and leaves a deep mark on his two sons. Terrence Malick has a feel for the textures of life. At the same time he features some spectacularly beautiful nature photography. This film is visually beautiful but still not for all tastes. Rating: high +2 (-4 to +4 scale) or 8/10
If this review seems cryptic and bizarre it is because so is the film reviewed.
It takes a remarkable filmmaker to take what appear to be little bits and pieces of reminiscence, place them in a continuum going back to formation of the Earth and forward to its destruction, season it with Bible quotes, and not have it seem at least a little pretentious. Even Terrence Malick (BADLANDS, DAYS OF HEAVEN, THE THIN RED LINE) is not quite that good, but at least he comes close. Yes, the film is pretentious. Jack O'Brien (played by Hunter McCracken as a boy and Sean Penn as a man) contemplating his past with a mind that wanders to the distant past and the far future. (There is some very nice dinosaur animation, by the way.)
Yes, it is a very strange film but, cutting Malick some slack for artistic license, his film is also compelling and hypnotic. Malick's images of a Waco, Texas, family are extremely naturalistic. His mixing of sound with the constant background of insect chirping together with the languorous pacing gives the audience a feel for the texture of the setting. To keep his audience's attention he uses unexpected camera angles and frequently sweeping camera moves.
There is something indefinable in Malick's writing that makes the scenes we see seem at once taken at random yet are believable as what someone like Jack might feel were key memories of his past. Through Jack's eyes we see his father slowly poison the relationship between him and Jack. The affectionate father of the very young Jack become a disciplinarian and when not stopped becomes an abusive tyrant. The film returns to slightly false notes extrapolating the relationship into some heaven-like future--heaven here has no clouds but appears a bunch the dear departed walking on a metaphysical beach. Malick just does not quite avoid the saccharine.
But for the scenes of pure fantasy the film feels like it is less the art of a storyteller and more the observations of a documentarian. He gives us not so much a plot as a chronicle of the life of an American family. Brad Pitt as the father of the family has come a long way in his acting ability. With THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON, MONEYBALL, and TREE OF LIFE Pitt has become much more than a pretty face. The film also stars Sean Penn, but he does little more than stand around for his second- billing role. More active is Jessica Chastain as the mother of the family whose life philosophy expressed in an early voiceover is that we have two choices "the Way of Nature" and "the Way of Grace." After Malick's tribute to the beauty of nature, it is a little ironic that the Way of Nature is to have no self-discipline and give in to temptation and impulse. The Way of Grace--to be self-denying and moderate--is considered the better path. As Katherine Hepburn's Rose Sayer says in THE AFRICAN QUEEN, "Nature ... is what we were put on earth to rise above."
It is surprising that such a diffuse film works. But it is only because Malick remains so obscure that he avoids falling into the valley of pure hokum. What does the death of a brother really have to do with distant galaxies or dinosaurs? There are definitely parts of this film where it is recommended one just looks at the pretty pictures and not worry about what Malick is trying to say. But even then there are places where the images are awe-inspiring. One does not have to accept the metaphysical messages to appreciate the art of the film. Malick has crafted a film that is at once a beautiful work of art and a strong human drama. If he believes that after death we walk on pristine beaches, well, that is what suspension of disbelief is all about. After all, even an atheist can appreciate the beauty of Michelangelo's Pieta. In any case, I rate the film a high +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 8/10.
Film Credits: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0478304/
What others are saying: http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/the_tree_of_life_2011/
Mark R. Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Copyright 2011 Mark R. Leeper