WARNING: This review features potential spoilers, not to mention countless blasphemies against the sacred talents of director Terrence Malick.
NOTES: This film is rated PG-13. Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, and Jessica Chastain star. Director Terrence Malick has helmed movies such as Badlands and The Thin Red Line.
On his way back from the IMAX presentation on the birth of the cosmos and the death of the dinosaurs, reclusive director Terrence Malick drove his rickety ’52 Ford truck down a dirt path deep in the heart of Texas and discovered a god-fearing family under the thumb of an angry father. Satisfied with his find, Malick teleported back to present day NYC, a metropolis dressed in vanity as tall as its skyscapers, and observed a brooding man, still clinging to his childhood in Texas, amid all the sin and degradation of the modern age.
Sounds disjointed, right? Doesn’t make sense? Ok, I confess: This is not the genesis of how Malick developed the storyline, if it can be called that, for his fifth full-length feature, “The Tree of Life.” Though if it had been, it would have made more sense than much of what appeared on the screen.
Countless reviewers have cited Malick’s ambition in their reviews of “The Tree of Life,” as if ambition alone is a sweet-smelling aroma capable of seducing moviegoers into buying into surging hype. Sure, few directors would create a film that gazes at the monolith in Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” and attempts to make sense of it. I get that, but attempting such a film and pulling it off are light years apart.
“The Tree of Life” is hauntingly beautiful in stretches, particularly in its depiction of the universe’s genesis and the fire and fury that birthed our world. These slow-burning moments are rendered in a way that never feels cheap or put-on (read: summer disaster flicks). We see the devastating power of nature (fire, floods, ice, etc.) We also see a touch of humanity via one dinosaur administering a last rite of sorts to a peer.
Where this film hits a serious snag is when Malick trains his eye on humans. That’s not to take away from the actor’s performances — they are fine. I just did not fully buy into the way Malick used the characters to address his so-called bigger questions.
The film shows the O’Brien family, directly and indirectly, through three phases of their lives: The mother and father and three sons, presumably a decade before the death of one of their sons/the mother and father immediately after the son’s death/the eldest son decades after his brother’s death.
All of these artful vignettes add up to what amounts to Malick’s two-hour rumination on how God created the world only to see man, whom he created in his own image, piss on it like little children.
The father in this movie is like an Old Testament God, fiery and ready to take vengeance. There’s a hint the father changes after his chosen son (a Jesus-like character) dies in a foreign land to save others who don’t appreciate the sacrifice (*my own inference; the movie does not reveal this). Perhaps, this is the New Testament personified. Perhaps not. Too much is left unanswered to know.
The film’s three phases are shown in a non-linear fashion reminiscent of someone falling asleep with their elbow pressing against the rewind or fast forward button on the remote. There is no such thing as flow. There is the spector of life and death and what’s beyond those things. And it all comes and goes, like our fleeting existence.
As mysterious and random as the cosmos’ formation is the arrival of a letter near the movie’s beginning. Mrs. O’Brien (Jessica Chastain) reads it and breaks down. Her 19-year-old son has died. The film never alludes to how he died — it does not return to that time period, presumably the Vietnam War era.
The film abruptly cuts to a grown-up version of O’Brien’s eldest son, Jack (Sean Penn). He is inside a skyscraper in New York City, gazing down on everything below, in regret. He remarks, in a voiceover, that the world is going to the dogs and everyone has gotten greedy. Perhaps he is like God looking down upon his creation. (I wish the elder Jack would have been fleshed out a bit more; he just felt foreign.)
The eldest son’s sentiments seem like something his father would share.
Brad Pitt stars as Mr. O’Brien, a man who preaches to his three children not to be too good. To do so will not help them get ahead in life, he warns. Yet, he also reprimands them at every turn. He is a conflicted man. His love is based on conditions, circumstance, etc. His temper flares up at odd intervals.
The eldest son can’t seem to do anything right. He sometimes revels in his father’s growing discontent. There is also a poignant scene where he charges that his father wishes he would die.
The middle brother, except for one slip-up at dinner, can do no wrong. He even picks up the acoustic guitar in a manner that gives his father hope he can live out his long since abandoned dream of being a musician.
The youngest … well, who knows?
Mr. O’Brien seems to almost look down on his eldest son, at times. He encourages him to smack his face in a deranged fashion. Meanwhile, Mrs. O’Brien attempts to love each child equally and shield them from their father’s wrath. She most personifies the unconditional love Jesus spoke of in the New Testament.
In the film’s waning moments, a grown-up Jack walks through the frame of a door in the middle of nowhere and meets his parents and his younger brother. They each share a warm embrace.
Perhaps it’s that simple. You live, you die, and then you are reunited with the ones you loved. It all seems so evangelical. Minus, you know, the fire and brimstone bit.
Who really knows what it all means, right? Malick left us with something that is gorgeous, maddening, and sure to spark plenty of discussion in cinephiles and theologians alike. Just don’t call it a masterpiece.