The Tree of Life is either a triumph of artistic film or a boat load of cinematic crap. You will have to decide which one for yourself.
This shameless film by writer/director Terrence Malick has generated some Oscars buzz, but what you take from it will depend almost entirely on what you bring into it.
The story centers on a family in 1950s Texas, particularly Jack (Hunter McCracken), the eldest of three sons, and his questioning of life’s meaning. Jack’s father (Brad Pitt) represents “nature”, with a confident, controlling, survivalist attitude. Jack’s mother (Jessica Chastain) represents “grace”, a gentle, nurturing presence that finally finds strength by hardship she and the family endure.
But don’t think for a minute there is anything resembling a traditional narrative film here. There is very little dialogue and the story skips back and forth through time. The upside is the production has a sense of visual poetry about it. And in this way it is an incredibly beautiful film. The imagery is opulent and effortlessly blends the real with dream sequences, creating an almost hypnotic stream-of-consciousness vision on screen.
An extended sequence showing the formation of our solar system, the origins of life and the sudden extinction of dinosaurs, is particularly stunning and serves to put the relatively minor tribulations of individual human lives into perspective. Themes of searching for meaning and becoming what we hate in order to survive are rich in this film and you could spend months teasing it apart and discussing it.
But in a way, this is also the film’s major flaw. It’s so cluttered and overstuffed with often obscure symbolism that it nearly ends up meaning nothing at all. There is an overall feeling of being jerked out of the moment in order to acknowledge some new piece of self-conscious imagery. Less in this case would have been more. In addition, Sean Penn’s scenes as an adult Jack never really integrate with the rest of the film.
The sheer depth and breadth of the concepts Malick explores make it a truly ambitious film but it almost feels like it was constructed for the express purpose of being analyzed by university film professors. It isn’t quite pretentious but it has a deliberate abstractness that pushes it perilously close. If you approach The Tree of Life as the art-piece, there is a wealth of poetic beauty and deeper meaning to find.
One word of warning, if you’re expecting a conventional movie with a conventional story you’ll be gravely disappointed.
Currently available on Blu-Ray at Amazon.