Mrs. O’Brien: Jessica Chastain
Jack: Sean Penn
Young Jack: Hunter McCracken
R.L.: Laramie Eppler
Steve: Tye Sheridan
Fox Searchlight presents a film written and directed by Terrence Malick. Running time: 132 min. Rated PG-13 (for some thematic material).
The only way to be happy is to love. Unless you love, your life will flash by.
—Mrs. O’Brien, “The Tree of Life”
I’m a dad. I’m a son. I’m not from the generation depicted in Terrence Malick’s possibly autobiographical new movie “The Tree of Life”. I have put much thought into some of the practices portrayed by Brad Pitt as the father of three boys in this movie. I often wonder, am I too easy on my boys? I know my dad was not too strict on me, but I think he probably was stricter than I am. As a child, I might’ve felt hurt by his level lessons of respect and responsibility. Today, I understand he was only doing his best.
Of course, as young children we don’t have the slightest concept of the entire scope of our parents’ lives. We don’t understand what fuels their love or their restrictions against us. As parents we’ve lost touch with some of the freedoms of childhood. We’ve made sacrifices that have changed some of our plans and priorities. Nor do we have a concept of the full scope of the world and what made it what it is.
Malick’s Palme d’Or winning movie isn’t really about being a parent or a child, although those are important details that he tries to come to terms with in it. His movie is much grander in scale. It is about the foundations of life, both on a cosmic scale and on a personal one. It focuses on a family in the same town that Malick grew up in, Waco, Texas, during the same time period. Yet, it goes back to the beginning of time. It depicts what could be interpreted as the birth of the Earth itself. It progresses through the beginnings of life on the planet through to when dinosaurs roamed the planet. Yes, it shows us dinosaurs.
The dinosaur sequence is brief and may be baffling to some, but it was the point in the movie where I first felt that I was beginning to see what Malick was getting at. This sequence plays in some ways like one of those Discovery channel reconstruction documentaries, without their useless narration telling us that these creatures are thinking things of which they couldn’t possibly even be aware. Instead the dinosaurs operate without the imposition of human speculation, acting on their own nature as we see one dinosaur possibly show mercy on another. Or, perhaps it isn’t a natural predator of the other, and it’s just being a bully. Malick doesn’t spell that out for us. It’s for the audience to contemplate.
The meat of the film is about the Texas family. Delivered in Malick’s trademark disjointed and dreamlike style, we meet the O’Briens. The father (Pitt, “Burn After Reading”) is at once a loving father and a cruel one. He doesn’t intend his cruelty, but he struggles with teaching his boys life lessons in a way that doesn’t demean them or exploit their weaknesses. He loves his children dearly, but he has given up on a career as a musician to work a job with respectable pay. The job often keeps him away from home and presents pressures he can’t help but bring home on occasion.
The wife (Jessica Chastain, the upcoming “The Help”) is more of a free spirit who contains herself when her husband is around. They argue about his treatment of the boys sometimes, but mostly she just falls into line. When the mister is away, however, she is a sprite who feeds off the boys’ energy and penchant for fantasy. We only see either parent through the eyes of the oldest boy, Jack. His brothers infrequently factor into his view of his parents, although the middle boy, R.L., does become the focus for Jack’s own alternate abuse and love.
We also see Jack in the present day. Played by Sean Penn (“Milk”), these scenes are the most dreamlike and intentionally least cohesive of the movie. Many of these scenes consist of Penn walking through cityscapes, stone landscapes, and along the beach. I don’t think any of Penn’s scenes actually happen in the story. They may represent some form of purgatory or dream, but I’d have to see the movie again to be sure. Even then, I’m not sure I’d want to fully understand them.
You will hear about the amazing performance by Pitt, who breaks away from some of the quirky mannerisms that have defined most of his better roles in the past. Here he portrays a fairly uptight man, rigidly conforming to what he thinks his role is as a man for his family. The real lead of the movie though is Young Jack, who stirs childhood nostalgia and memory for its trials and triumphs. Hunter McCracken moves emotions with his performance by embodying the darkness and dependence of a child searching for the meaning of all the contradicting information he’s fed by his environment.
If my description seems hard to follow, that is reflective of Malick’s style. I’ve probably given more solid meaning to Malick’s montage of images and impressions here than I should. Malick’s impressionistic style leaves much of the work in the audience’s minds. Because of this, “The Tree of Life” is one of the more rewarding film experiences you will find. Malick pushes the limits of what other directors will even consider is possible for the art form. He uses film—every aspect of it—to its greatest extent. The editing, photography, sound, and dialogue all mix together to make what can best be described as a cinemascape of impressions to immerse the audience into the feel of a movie rather than hitting them over the head with plots and words. In short, “The Tree of Life” is nothing short of exquisite film art. This is the best film of the year, so far.