Amusement can be had by reading reviews of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. Some will tell you it’s a masterpiece while others will argue it’s pretentious garbage. Films that evoke such a reaction always peak my curiosity.
I’ve only seen one other Terrence Malick film before this, The Thin Red Line. I thought that movie had its moments and gave it 3 out of 5 stars. I also know that providing that rating just made my friend James Lorenzen punch a wall. Another Malick film, another line drawn between those who love and hate it.
The Tree of Life has no plot. I don’t care what the synopsis says. You can make the narrative be whatever you want. This is a film that has scenes from the present day, 1950’s small town Texas, outer space, and dinosaurs. That’s not even to mention the short scene where Jessica Chastain is floating above the ground in front of a tree outside her house. There is little dialogue and many whispered voice overs. In fact, the whispers must have been a known issue as the blu-ray I watched told me to crank the sound – that’s the way the filmmaker would want you to watch it.
The first forty minutes of the film includes nearly no dialogue at all. Instead of setting up a coherent story, we’re presented with beautiful images of nature, both of the present and distant past. The soundtrack is classical and moving, yet I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was at an IMAX science film. I was waiting for Morgan Freeman to start narrating at any moment. He never did. Fortunately the Discovery channel like beginning breaks into the 1950’s setting where we see Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain and start their family. It is during the next eighty minutes that I was completely enthralled by The Tree of Life.
During the middle of the film we see a young boy (Jack) grow up in a way that captures small yet memorable moments that stick with a person even as they reach adulthood. For example, there is a scene where Jack and his brother are walking across a street in town and they see a handicapped man struggle to walk to his car. They witness some criminals get thrown into a police car. These scenes are shot from the child’s point of view and it’s clear the impression on the kids has been made. Other times there are scenes where a group of boys go out and get into some mischief by throwing rocks at an abandoned building’s window or tying a frog to a small rocket and firing it into the air. There is something tugging at Jack that makes him feel guilty about this. The soundtrack changes its tone during these moments and becomes dark, a bit menacing even. These are small moments in a child’s life but seem much bigger to the child experiencing them.
Another focus of the film is Jack’s relationships with his mother (Jessica Chastain) and father (Brad Pitt) which morph in sometimes disturbing ways. Pitt is a stern father who isn’t afraid to use force to get his point across. Contrast that with the mother, who is almost childlike in her playful, care free behavior – as long as father is away. When father is home, mother is a sad shell of a woman who does her best to protect the children, though by the end of the film, the bond between Jack and his mom was portrayed in an almost unhealthy manner.
Had The Tree of Life ended at around the 1:50 mark I would have been satisfied. Yes, it was a burden for me to make it to the middle of the film, the part I adored, but some things are worth the struggle. However, the last twenty-five minutes or so were pretty brutal. It was much like the beginning of the film, except we get an attempt at some sort of resolution, which includes a grown up Jack (Sean Penn) joining his mother, father, younger brothers in a beach/heaven like setting. In between that we have images of nature once again and soaring music. Beautiful cinematography and music, but Malick had stretched my patience too far. I was eagerly waiting for the end which eventually came, though I was almost convinced it would not and I would be stuck in the ending of The Tree of Life for the rest of my life.
I can relate to both those who love and hate The Tree of Life, as I both loved and hated the film. I loved more than I hated. A strange reaction to a film, but when there is no plot, little dialogue, and lots of weird odds and ends, I guess that’s OK.