Terrance Malick’s films are often hard to digest, in the same way that after Thanksgiving dinner, one must sit around and nap or complain about how full they are because they ate way to much. There are so many visuals and so much he communicates on screen, impressively enough using little dialogue and plot. The Tree of Life has a lot going on, but its a beautiful, profound, thought-provoking film that I am sure will be milling in my brain for days, maybe weeks, maybe years.
Of course, its not a film for everyone. As the credits rolled, several in the audience issued audible sighs (and a few “Thank God!”‘s). Others were angry at the lack of respect showed to a film that obviously moved them. I sat and absorbed the reactions. Some people go to the movies to be entertained, some go to be challenged to view the world differently. Neither is wrong or better, but Malick is not your summer blockbuster director. If you don’t walk away from his films asking deep questions about life, then you didn’t like it.
The film itself follows a family in Waco, TX. Well sort of. It first shows us glimpses of the life of the oldest son, played by Sean Penn, all grown up, still reeling from the death of his younger brother, which happened years ago when his brother was 19. We also see the parents, played perfectly by Jessica Chastain and Brad Pitt, reacting to the news of the sons death many years earlier. Then we are taken on a 20 minute journey through the evolution of the earth (yes, this is where the famous dinosaur scene takes place).
I can only suppose that these sequences are ment to add context to the story. This family’s life, just like the rest of ours, has meaning, but when placed in the bigger picture, is a vapor, a fleeting, passing moment. Its magical how small Malick makes us feel before diving into the relationships of the family. We see the sons being born (there are 3, though the youngest hardly does anything). We see them growing up, and then we focus on a time when they are all pre-adolescents, having summer adventures. Pitt as the father is supposed to represent nature, or force and will, while Chastain represents grace and love. They are both pitch perfect. They are in conflict with how to raise these boys, and that conflict is the center of the film.
The story is focused on the oldest, played by Hunter McCracken, yet another wonderful young actor. As he comes into greater self-awareness, these waring factions within him begin to manifest themselves in his life. I have never seen a film communicate show this aspect of growing up so truly before. I just couldn’t look away. It was truly wonderful.
Now the film is a bit long, and lingers in a few places (which of course allowed me to let my mind run wild with questions and suppositions). It also seems a bit presumptuous and pretentious at times. But, it has a beautiful score, the acting is top notch and it has many memorable shots and scenes (although some of them will have you scratching your head).
If you find yourself particularly contemplative one afternoon, go check it out. If you want to be entertained, maybe catch X-Men instead.