The Tree of Life: Rated “PG-13” (138 Minutes)
Starring: Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, Joanna Going, Fiona Shaw, Laramie Eppler
Directed by: Terrence Malick
At its simplest, Terrence Malick film, The Tree of Life is the impressionistic story of a middleclass family set in the 1950s in Texas. While any attempt to describe this film with something approaching a coherent, straightforward plot is not simple for even though the film ostensibly follows the life journey of the family’s eldest son, Jack O’Brien, through the relative innocence of his childhood to his disillusionment in his adult years as he attempts to come to grips a complex relationship with his father (Pitt). As an adult (Penn) Jack is something of a lost soul set adrift in the modern world, seeking answers to the origins and meaning of life while questioning both his own existence as well as the existence of faith.
Not known as a prolific writer-director (since 1973 this is only his fifth film) Terrence Malick has constructed a cinematically beautiful if somewhat baffling story with this film. Here, after setting up the bare bones of the story Malick launches into an extended existentialist vision quest where Jack (as an adult) attempts to make sense of the world around him. This 20 minute segment occurs early in the film and juxtaposes Jack as a wealthy and powerful corporate icon operating in the modern world adrift that is a far cry from his hard-scrabble life in the Texas panhandle. Even as he and his father attempt to reconcile with each other amidst the grandeur of all of existence, where we see how both the brute force of nature and spiritual grace of the universe shapes not only our lives as individuals and families, but all of life itself.
After this climatically profound existential adventure we return to the story where his mother (Chastain) has received a telegram informing her of one of her three son’s death at age 19 (we are never told which son, but it is assumed to be R.L. (Eppler) the middle of her three boys.) She then contacts her husband by phone, which sends the rest of the family into a tailspin of grief and despair as they all attempt to cope with the enormity of this epic tragedy.
Throughout his youth Jack’s father (who is a loving yet 50s-strict disciplinarian) covets wealth while regretting that he himself failed to become a great musician. He files patents for a number of inventions yet nothing seems to catch. And so he spends the rest of his professional life attempting to balance his sense of paternal duty with the overwhelming love he has for his sons. Untimely he only winds up putting distance between himself and those he loves. These scenes of vaguely meandering story (mostly shot with little or no dialogue), are continually intercut with scenes of incredible beauty as we not so much move towards the end of the story, but meanderingly drift towards something resembling a conclusion.
This is, by no means a “normal” tale, and potential viewers of the film should be aware that it is decidedly different from anything resembling standard storytelling. Still, the cinematography is gorgeous, and the story (what you can make of it), is compelling in its own right. Not for everyone, but worth the visit to offset the standard Hollywood blockbuster fare.
Robert J. Sodaro has been writing professionally for over 30 years. During that time, his movie reviews and articles have appeared in numerous publications, as well as on the web.