Film review: The Tree of Life

June 27, 2011

originally published in the Raleigh News & Observer

A bold but flawed film from a great director, Terence Malick’s “The Tree of Life” is an enormously ambitious creative vision and the year’s first absolute must-see movie.

Malick is the reclusive American director known for his high-wire act of using experimental film techniques on stories of often epic scope – his most recent being “The Thin Red Line” (1998) and “The New World” (2005).

With “The Tree of Life,” Malick sets up his biggest canvas yet. The film is nothing less than an exploration of the human condition itself. Malick dares to the ask the big questions. Where did we come from? Why are we here? Where is God?

And how does an explosion of cosmic plasma a billion years ago result in a hurt and lost little boy in 1950s Texas?

Different Scales

“Tree of Life” tells its story on two radically different scales, macro and micro. The bulk of the film’s running time is spent observing the O’Brien family – Dad, Mom and three young boys – during one summer in small town Texas.

Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt in a fierce and fearless performance) is the strict disciplinarian; Mrs. O’Brien (an angelic Jessica Chastain) the font of maternal warmth.

The film keeps its focus on Jack (Hunter McCracken), the oldest of the three boys, who in that one fateful summer loses his innocence in waves. As his world begins to expand, Jack experiences for the first time death and illness, rebellion and guilt, and the terrifying prospect that Dad might not, ultimately, be on his side.

Malick has structured his film around complex rhythms, and the narrative flashes forward and back – including contemporary sequences with the adult Jack (Sean Penn) as a big city architect.

At one point, Malick executes what may be the most radical reverse-zoom in the history of cinema, pulling the camera all the way back to the the Big Bang itself.

Thus follows the film’s most audacious and controversial passage – 30 or so minutes of abstract visuals chronicling the history of life, the universe and everything. Galaxies swirl. Planets boil. Oceans form and mountains drift.

This is the film’s most artsy and gutsy choice, and it’s certain to divide viewers – as it did during its premiere at France’s Cannes film festival, where half the audience cheered and the other half walked out. The film went on to win the festival’s highest prize, the Palme d’Or, and people are likely to be debating Malick’s intent here for years to come.

I found the film’s cosmic elements to be mesmerizing at times, and terribly distracting at others. The celestial beauty of film’s final images brought me to tears, but other passages look too much like Discovery channel nature specials. Also, never use CGI dinosaurs unless you’re Steven Spielberg and you’re going to have them chase Laura Dern. I thought everybody knew this.

Sins of the Fathers

Meanwhile, the scenes back in Texas have a specific emotional tension in counterpoint to all the cosmic chilliness. Malick was born in Waco and grew up in the ’50s Texas, and it’s here that he does the heavy lifting on themes of memory, love and grace.

Oh, and daddy issues. Pitt is really good in the role of the borderline-abusive father, which is to say I wanted to stick my pencil in his neck for much of the film.

A failed musician and frustrated inventor, Mr. O’Brien terrifies his kids with his arbitrary rules and strict discipline. When Jack finally rebels, you feel that the events of this particular summer have changed his life’s trajectory.

In fact, one way of considering “The Tree of Life” is that it’s all about fathers, earthly and celestial.

The film’s final scenes, a wash of images and hymnal music, somehow bring everything together on a purely cinematic frequency that’s impossible to articulate, but deeply moving.

So save those concession stand napkins – you’re going to need them.

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