The Tree of Life,
directed by Terrence Malick
(Fox Searchlight, 2011)

Go with it.

Go with director and writer Terrence Malick's ambiguous journey following a 1950s family's early history told predominantly through whispered inner thoughts; go with the nonlinear timeline that frequently jumps eons in addition to years; go with the jarring scenes of swirling, glorious cosmos and the beginning of a human life set to a musical score equal to the swelling dramatic content.


Because The Tree of Life, while arguably over-dramatic and overwhelming, has conviction. The film explores and tries to make sense of god, faith and the origins of humanity, which undoubtedly apply in some way to every human being. Malick has obviously created a film with such earnest and with such passion that the key, as a viewer, is to let yourself embrace this filmic attempt at explaining what most have deemed inexplicable rather than becoming annoyed by what, at times, seems like pictorial rambling -- -absolutely gorgeous pictorial rambling!

The Texan family we follow is named the O'Briens and is comprised of the typical nuclear family tree. Mr. O'Brien, a dominant and fear-inducing family man, is played impressively by Brad Pitt lost in his character rather than his star persona. Jessica Chastain imbues Mrs. O'Brien with a delicate yet wise spirit in contrast to Mr. O'Brien's. Together, he is Nature (unhappy and selfish) and she is Grace (humble and self-sacrificing), which the beginning of the film tells us are the two ways of living that all human beings must choose between; together they raise three boys, most notably the eldest named Jack (younger Jack is played by newcomer Hunter McCracken and Sean Penn plays the older version of Jack).

Jack and the two boys are like test subjects. Jack's birth and growth are full of the typically important moments -- crawling, walking, his first word, etc. However, what makes Jack's growth one of the most insightful and intimate documentations through the use of montage -- a trite and campy cinematic technique redeemed through this film -- is it captures the first time he recognizes himself in a mirror, learns possession ("it's mine!" he yells as his hand grabs a piece of cake), names animals, dances to music and is jealous of another person (his newly born baby brother).

It's apparent that Jack is an exploration into how we are shaped as people. The weary and lost adult Jack traces back to everything we see while he's growing up; how torn he is between being a wielder of power like his father, hurting his loved ones and then requesting declarations of love, or like his mother a meek submissive to everything and anything that life and god subject her to -- this includes death.

One of the most difficult and bewildering events in life, death is the underlying pain in The Tree of Life. Impossible to understand and never something we completely forgive, it drives most of the whispered narrative asking questions like "Lord, why? Where were you? Answer me." If viewer's find themselves easily put off by talk of god and religion then go see the film for its beauty. As a good friend once said "It's Terrence Malick! It's two and a half hours of beautiful!" Enough said.

review by
Molly Ebert

7 April 2012

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