The Tree of Life is Terrence Malick's long-awaited return to the exploring, questioning, image-soaked form that he first explored a decade ago with The Thin Red Line (1999). It is a project Malick has been working on and planning for decades, so to say that this film has some hype following it is a major understatement. He is not a director who doesn't work at specific pace; he takes his time and passionately expresses his ideas and views through his work. With this film, Malick finds a project that works extremely well with all of his conflicting questions on existentialism, our troubled relationships with God and nature, along with Malick's humanistic sympathy that is beautiful and tragic all in one breath.
"Where were you when I laid the earth's foundation....while the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God sang for joy?"
An that quote from the Book of Job starts our journey through time, space, life and love. Through narration Mrs. O'Brien (Jessica Chastain) explains that there are two directions one can take through life - grace or nature. She is one of those people who believes that endless love will conquer all obstacles and that life is endless beauty. As she patiently and affectionately (just like a mother) tells us the wonders of the world and why grace is a much better path through life than nature, wonderful imagery supports her. But her sure hope crumbles when she learns that one of her sons has died (presumably at war) at the age 19. Mr. O'Brien (Brad Pitt) is notified by phone and he is overcome with regret about how tough he had been on his son. Both are destroyed in their own isolated ways; they plead to God for an explanation, but receive no answers.
Then we see Jack O'Brien, one of the other sons, who is an architect and lives in a upper-class apartment with his beautiful girlfriend. Older Jack is played by Sean Penn in a limited role that becomes extremely important by the end. A phone call with his father reveals that Jack's life was also greatly impacted by the death of his brother, causing the ultimate destruction of his relationship with his parents. As he begins to ask his own unanswerable questions about life and God, Malick gets lost in his own wonder.
For twenty tiring minutes Malick attacks us with a visual extravaganza where he attempts to portray the creation of time and space. Malick shows off his visionary talents and for a moment lets us into his head, unfortunately his mind is far too advanced and complicated for most to handle. I admire how he uses CGI visuals with a purpose. But the way he jumps around in space and time, even going as far to represent the morality of dinosaurs, is a headache to follow, impossible to fully understand. If asked, I know for a fact Malick could give us detailed, impassioned explanations for every frame of the aforementioned sequence. I would love to be given that honor.
Once he returns from his visionary episode, Malick takes us back to the start of the previously interrupted tale of a struggling family. They live in a suburban home located in 50s Waco, Texas. It is through Jack's ( played by young Hunter McCracken) eyes we witness this families' struggles. First we see the beauty of his birth and they joy it brings the O'Brien family. Through quick montages we see his infant wonder. His first steps, untouchable curiosity, and the way he reacts to the births of his brothers. The O'Brien family grows; and as the sons get older the purity of their simple lives is complicated. Even the quickest moments of the film are slowly paced by Malick who, whether we like it or not, tests our patience and tolerance for lingering thoughts and emotions.
The boys act like they are supposed to. Constantly getting into trouble and exploring every aspect of the world around them. New face Hunter McCracken plays young Jack, his performance is the center-point of the film and the youngster stole my heart. It is easy to see him as a representation of just about every young boy. Always testing the boundaries of everything as his father simultaneously attempts to prepare for the "real world." As his father becomes stricter and intensifies his parenting methods he gradually rebels.
Played by Brad Pitt, Mr. O'Brien becomes a caricature of so many fathers, especially in the 50s. Pitt immediately brings star-status to any film he appears in, so seeing him in a performance, where the spotlight is rarely on him, deliver a performance that is one of the strongest supporting roles I have seen in a long time. It is his relationship with young Jack that becomes the real tragedy of the film. Their conflicted relationship makes every moment where they are together a tense contest of masculinity.My heart died seeing him unintentionally destroy the innocence of his sons (most of all Jack). In contrast Jessica Chastain's (The Debt) performance as Mrs. O'Brien is empathetic and understanding. Impossible to not fall in love with, but once we look deeper her flaws are heightened.
Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (Children of Men) first collaborated with Malick for his historical romance-drama, The New World (1995). Lubezki's camera and imagery with Malick's humanistic direction co-exist to create atmosphere and scenery that tell their own stories. This film really could be put into a collage of beautiful images that would create significant modern art. Watching a video montage of Lubezki's on this film would be essential viewing for any aspiring cinematographer.
The Tree of Life is an unanswerable question that is dying to be answered. We ask it because we can, and watch to see what happens. Malick knows he won't reach any answers, but he embraces the challenge of trying and through him this film becomes much more than it ever could have. Working best with the humanist side, his patience with the conflicting natures of the world is reminiscent to Lars von Trier's darker, much more brutally pessimistic film, Antichrist (2009). Unlike Antichrist, Malick's vision is sympathetic and lets beauty overpower darkness. The ending is not particularly satisfying, but it is perfectly fitting. It lets you remember what you have just seen, letting its intentions take their time to sink in.
Malick uses the O'Brien family of a representation of the struggles of life, but they are merely coincidental components in his existential exploration. The Tree of Life is the most personal project by a one of the most fascinating minds in the world. Yes, the world. Nothing is shown at face value, for 140 minutes Malick reveals our entire existence layer-by-layer. It does become a tiring film to watch, and its intentions become repetitive, but never will you want to look away. I felt a constant wave of emotions flowing through me that constantly reminded me I was watching something special. This film leaves an immediate impact, but I was amazed at how each image and emotion touched me in a deeper way as time went on. Like any Malick film, much patience is needed, and he does tend to get lost in his ideas and his questions can be repetitive. There is no easy entertainment, but an affect that will find its way into your daily life; whether consciously or subconsciously, the way you look at everything this world has to offer will be changed in some way.