The Tree of Life
Starring Brad Pitt, Sean Penn and Jessica Chastain
Directed by Terrence Malick (The New World)
Rated PG-13 for some thematic material
Appropriate for all ages
So what is this film about? That is a solid question. Many will go into the movie thinking it is about a Texas family with three boys growing up in the 1950’s. It is that, sort of. There is the part of the film that follows this family parented by Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain, both turning in Oscar-worthy performances. This particular narrative is told from the point of view of the oldest son, played by Hunter McCracken as a child and Sean Penn later in life, who as an adult is now working in downtown Houston and imagining his childhood in Waco. But that’s not all of what the film is about.
Opening with the bible verses of Job 38: 4 and 7, the film quickly sets its central theme of the exploration of God’s complex relationship with man. The characters are constantly asking questions of God, just as Job did in the Old Testament. Beginning with the death of their second son, they are constantly asking God why. And as the first questions come out, Director Terrence Malick takes the audience on a journey of his vision of God. It’s not the old bearded man in the sky, but rather images ranging from the Universe and its immensity to the tiniest animal cell. You’ve probably heard there are dinosaurs by now, but in case you hadn’t, his vision includes all sorts of animal life from past to present, all within the context of God creating and molding the Universe and Earth. The segment is a grand piece of cinema that will no doubt go down as one of the most beautiful visual movements in film history.
And then there is the conflict mentioned about living your life either in nature or grace. This theme resonates throughout the movie, driving the characters in their actions.
So what is the film about? It’s almost impossible to pitch the story, but if you can tie these elements together without a working narrative, you have the crux of it.
What the film is about hardly matters, though, since it’s the power of the film that most will find the most meaningful. This film pulled me in and connected with me as no other film has ever done before. I was completely mesmerized for the entire 138 minutes and many hours afterword as well. Since the scenes are largely incomplete and appear as more of a vision, I found myself meditating on my own life and events that were similar to those of this family. I think it will be easy for many to conjure up these images while watching the seemingly unrelated events unfold and then personally assign the narrative from your own childhood.
I knew from the first act that this would be an important film. I am certain that in 20, 30, 50 years and more this film will be looked at as a crowning achievement of cinema. I also knew that it would be polarizing. Many folks are not going to like it or get it. The trailer didn’t help with this at all. If you are going into it thinking you will be seeing the next Brad Pitt/Sean Penn drama, you could be sorely disappointed. Pitt and Penn are merely colors painted on Terrence Malick’s grand canvas. I’m not saying you have to be a Malick fan or even know his work, but this is so far from a typical Hollywood film that it will turn many audiences off. If you actually ask “honey, should we go see Pirates, Hangover or Tree of Life?,” by all means – go see one of the other two. Your frame of mind is everything when it comes to your potential enjoyment and connection with this movie.
While it’s been attempted countless times, no one has ever created a more beautiful piece of motion picture art than Malick has here, and not everyone wants to go to the movies to see art. As for me, I’m looking forward to enjoying this film for years to come. I can’t wait to get the blu-ray and devour the special features. I can’t wait to read the books that will most likely be written about it. I can’t wait to share it with my family and friends in the hope that they will find in it what I did. A+