“The Tree of Life” Review
Filmmaker Terrence Malick has achieved a stellar reputation despite having a limited body of work. His work is highly stylized, dreamlike, and utilizes heavy symbols to contemplate even heavier questions regarding life, death, existence, and suffering. His most recent film after a six-year hiatus is “The Tree of Life”, a flick that tackles such questions and makes you wonder if Malick spent the last six years doing acid and contemplating the meaning of life. The film would be a logical product of such a binge. Some say that “The Tree of Life” is Malick’s way of raging against God for his own personal suffering as he tries to reconcile horror and despair with beauty and love; some at Cannes Film Festival hated it and others loved it, but at the end of the day it did win the coveted Palme d’Or (“Golden Palm”) prize, which more or less is the Best Picture at the French Festival, which speaks volumes.
But whatever the rationale for the film, it has the effect of drowning you in sorrow and oppressing you with the overwhelming cosmic beauty of the universe, nature, and life itself. And as overwrought and pretentious as my phrasing seems, it hardly does the film justice. Film buffs and critics might love it, but I have a suspicion that the average person would find it boring and dreary, over-stylized and annoyingly “artsy-fartsy”. There are a lot of dream-like scenes, a ton of light, and scenes of nature in excess. Every other shot made me want to pick up a paintbrush; the colors and angles were just so visually visceral and stunning.
It’s exceedingly difficult to try and imbibe a coherent plotline for “The Tree of Life”. Malick’s intention is to defy convention, using the struggles of a single family as a lens to examine the universal questions of existence. He tries to defy any traditional plotline and instead will jump between time periods in the life of a man named Jack O’Brien. Sean Penn plays him as an adult, but we see Jack more often as a troubled teenager played by Hunter McCracken. And the infuriating part is that the film doesn’t remain focused solely on Jack. It begins with his mother, moves to Jack as a child, will jump to Jack’s father, over to Jack as an adult, then transitions abruptly to adolescent Jack. The effect isn’t too hard to follow but it forces the viewer into constantly paying attention, leaving you feeling unsettled and more than a little disturbed. Hysterically enough, an Italian cinema played the film in the wrong order and nobody even noticed…for over a week.
What initiates all of the trouble in the O’Brien household is a telegram received by Mrs. O’Brien within the first few minutes of the film telling her that her 19-year-old son had died. This loss shakes the foundations of their household and is a harsh blow that haunts Jack in his adulthood. For me, this is where the film became something of an overly transcendental J. D. Salinger novel. One of my English professors once told me that in just about all of Salinger’s stories his main characters suffer existential crises reeling in the death of a sibling. Holden’s first mental break was when his brother Allie died, and in “Franny & Zooey” the two title characters struggle to see God in a world where their brilliant eldest brother Seymour Glass killed himself. Malick, like Salinger, taps into that reoccurring theme, exposing us to the most painful thing that can happen to a family, the kind of sorrowful experience that can make even the most devout people – like Mrs. O’Brien – question the very existence of God.
By the end of the first half of “Tree of Life” – spurred on by the mother’s question of God: “Did you know even then?” – we encounter a visually stunning but nauseatingly obtuse montage of Creation itself and how life first came to be. We see explosions, single-celled organisms, fish, and eventually even dinosaurs showing mercy (I kid you not). The scope is brought from the personal to the cosmic, demanding a reason from God for His painful absence in the horrors of everyday life and how such a dominion might justify Providence. It makes the viewer feel insignificant and powerless, but the product is as beautiful as it is disturbing. It’s only fitting that the entire film opens on a quote of God in the Book of Job: “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation…while the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?”
The main drama of “The Tree of Life” focuses on the troubled relationship between Jack and his father (Brad Pitt). Mr. O’Brien is hopelessly frustrated with the failures of his life and his angst turns him into a hopelessly harsh disciplinarian. Pitt’s acting is spot on, as always, but what surprised me about his performance is how well he really molds into the role. When Pitt is in a movie, all I usually see is Brad Pitt performing. I don’t see Achilles or a Nazi-killing commander or even a vampire with a conscience. Maybe it’s the retro thick-rimmed glasses between Pitt and the audience this time around, but Pitt really becomes Mr. O’Brien in “Tree of Life”. Sean Penn gets surprisingly little screen time but makes the best of it, and Jessica Chastain is pitch perfect as the hauntingly tragic and lovingly permissive mother.
In all of this, I’m sure that you’ve wound up just as confused as anyone would be in viewing the film. But is “The Tree of Life” any good? And what is the point of it all? Personally, I think it’s overwrought and overcooked, like Malick left a delicious bun in the oven a bit too long. But if you show up looking for amazing cinematography, shockingly little dialogue, and astounding symbolism, you might appreciate what Malick has to offer here.
And if it seems bleak to you, or even if your own life does, just think of the quote from the Book of Job. If you’re religious, believe that God is everywhere. If you’re not, at least recognize that Beauty is in everything in the world, and that love leads us to happiness. And if what I said sounds like bull to you, then you’re bad news bears my friend. Malick shows us the hardest parts of life but offers some closure, beauty, love, and truth that can ease any pains. Jack’s most disturbing question of God “Why should I be good when You’re not?” is juxtaposed with his mother’s heartbreakingly true advice: “The only way to be happy is to love. Unless you love, your life will flash by.”