I’ve been putting this review off for a while now. Before viewing The Tree of Life, I knew that it had received a lot of critical praise and I was really looking forward to it because of this. After watching it however, one of my great fears about the film was confirmed: it wasn’t nearly as awesome as I would have hoped. Directed by Terrance Malick, The Tree of Life is a movie that has seen a delayed release of nearly two years. I both love and hate the word “existential;” I love the meaning, but I hate the overuse of the word. That being said, The Tree of Life is certainly an existential film, but it is more a series of open-ended questions poised towards God.
The film opens in the 1960s with Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien (Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain) receiving a letter that their son has been killed in active duty. We then flash forward to present day, where Jack O’Brien (Sean Penn) reflects on the loss of his brother and the time spent growing up in his family. The next 30 minutes or so is a montage of the creation of life in our universe, accompanied by composer Alexandre Desplat and an array of liturgical music. (I’d hazard a guess that your average viewer would have given up by this point.) We see planets forming, volcanoes erupting, life evolving; the usual National Geographic spiel. Eventually the narrative finds its footing in the 1950s, where much of the film takes place. Jack and his two brothers live in Waco, Texas with their stern father and warm mother. Jack questions his father’s disciplinarian authority and sees hypocrisy in him that he despises. Jack looks to God and questions why he should listen to his father at all, and in one instance, asks God to kill his father. At this point in the film, Jack engages in a lot of rebellious activity, and hurts the people around him for no reason at all; he has lost a sense of morality. The end of the film seems to be a personal reconciliation for Jack with the demons of his past. It’s weird.
Barring Malick’s unconventional storytelling device, there are parts of the more grounded tale of the O’Briens that were muddled as well. For the duration of the film, The Tree of Life became an unintentional mystery for me. Which son had been killed? Was it Jack? If so, then how could he have grown up to become Sean Penn? DAMN YOU MALICK!!!!! The main issue with The Tree of Life is that it is two different stories that never truly congeal. I respect the overall theme of the film, however. The montages of creation are basically operatic music videos; very beautiful and powerful stuff. Malick’s decision to intersperse these scenes of creation with a mother and son’s search for life’s meaning is a wonderful idea. The problem is the final product of The Tree of Life can’t support the weight of that lofty ambition.
Final Grade: B-