The Tree of Life

The Tree of Life

Brat Pitt's so hungry he could eat a baby.

(2011) Drama (Fox Searchlight) Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, Jessica Chastain, Hunter McCracken, Laramie Eppler, Tye Sheridan, Fiona Shaw, Joanna Going, Will Wallace, Cole Cockburn, Brayden Whisenhunt, Irene Bedard, Dustin Allen. Directed by Terrence Malick

We have a connection to life that goes back to the first single celled organisms and indeed to the Big Bang itself. Some see the universe as a series of coincidences both fortunate and otherwise; others see the hand of a higher power involved.

For the O’Brien family of Waco, Texas in the 1950s, the choice was simple – the path of nature and the path of grace. But we’re getting a little ahead of ourselves, perhaps literally. We flash forward to the parents being informed of the death of their son at age 19. We are then shown the beginning of time (if you’re going to make a movie, you might as well begin at the beginning but Malick took that a bit literally), the beginnings of life as the first single celled organisms begin to split and divide into more complex creatures such as, say, dinosaurs.

Be that is as may, Mr. O’Brien (Pitt) is far more concerned with preparing his sons for adulthood with fierce determination and will. Some would say he’s borderline abusive – he is certainly strict – and he is also loving. Mrs. O’Brien (Chastain) is more of a path of grace sort, playful and nurturing, shielding her boys from the worst of Mr. O’Brien’s ill humors.

There are three O’Brien boys but the oldest is Jack (McCracken) and it is through his eyes that we see these events, both as a child and as an adult (Penn). The adult Jack is pensive, rarely speaking and apparently a successful architect. He is distant from his wife (Going) and not a day goes by that he doesn’t think of his dead brother R.L. (Eppler) whom he was closest to as a boy.

The boyhood in Waco is seen through the blinders of nostalgia; idyllic summer days, family picnics at the local swimming pool (where the fleeting nature of life is first encountered by a young Jack) and a DDT truck that dispenses clouds of toxic pesticide that was to his way of thinking the opportunity to dance in the clouds.

But there are snakes in Eden too. The arguments of his parents briefly glimpsed through open windows and overheard through closed doors. His own inner rage at never being good enough in his dad’s eyes, his love/hate rivalry with his brother, and the seductive call of doing something wrong and getting away with it. Young master Jack has the ability to be a royal douchebag upon occasion.

Our mortality is inevitable; what happens to those who pass? And why would a good and loving deity allow a mother to suffer the loss of a child before his time? Answers to questions like this are never forthcoming. It is the path of grace that tells us that we must have faith that the universe will unfold as it should. That doesn’t make it any easier to cope.

Describing this movie is very much like juggling Jell-O. It’s amorphous and not always well-defined. Just when you think you have something, it slips through your fingers. The first part of the movie is presented in a series of images that aren’t really fully developed scenes as such, but more like fragmented memories. There is little dialogue early on other than portentous voice-over narration.

Malick is one of the most imaginative directors working. He has never been prolific (this is only his seventh movie since 1973) but he has dedicated himself to quality, crafting his films with meticulous detail and this is no exception. He recreates the Waco of his childhood and it feels organic, with unlocked front doors, mothers keeping an eye on their children and the other children in the neighborhood, and strolls down the street.

A quote from the Book of Job opens the movie and it has been suggested that this is a thinly-veiled translation of the Biblical story. While I agree there are references to the notorious account and the story does show some parallels, I don’t think the director’s intention was to update Job in a more modern setting, albeit one nearly 60 years prior to now.

The movie becomes a bit more traditional in its storytelling about a third of the way through, with the focus on the dynamic between young Jack and his parents. Young McCracken does a decent enough job, speaking with that petulant Texas twang that only the young men of Texas know how to properly effect with the proper mix of sullen and respectful. Texas boys are adept at making “yes sir” sound like “screw you.”

It’s Pitt who takes over the movie. His presence is so powerful that even when he’s off-screen his presence is palpable. He is hard on his children but he is equally as fierce in his love for them. He is strong in his hugs, and also strong in his smacking around his sons – which was perfectly acceptable in the culture of the time, although some will look upon this treatment with aghast expressions.

Chastain is also a presence but in a different way. She is a nurturing, enfolding presence. She is only seen as sexual when she is in the process of procreating, as if the only use for her sexuality is to provide her husband with sons. Mrs. O’Brien is strong in her own way and while post-feminist sorts may find the portrayal a bit misogynistic, it isn’t in the least. Chastain’s task is to embody the ideal mom – not in an Ozzie and Harriet way, but as a nurturing spirit. Mrs. O’Brien is almost ethereal here, at home with angels both literally and figuratively.

This is not a movie to go into with faint heart. It requires the viewer to wrestle with some pretty basic questions and establish a perspective for our place in the universe and within the flow of time. There are times when I thought that there was a certain amount of sacrificing storytelling for artistry, but there’s no doubt that some of the cinematic images are as compelling as any you’re likely to see period.

It’s a movie that stays with you and gets under your skin. I suspect that it’s the kind of movie that will be remembered with more affection the farther away you get from actually seeing it. It has developed a reputation for being polarizing for audiences. At the packed screening I attended, the end credits were greeted with a deafening silence and then a smattering of applause. Critics have been effusive in their praise, and caustic in their criticism.

I characterized this as a movie you’re either going to love or hate, and to be honest I’m not sure which I feel for it at the moment. Since I haven’t decided, I’m going to split the difference and give it a rating in the middle which really isn’t accurate – this movie is anything but mediocre. However, the movie’s yin and yang are so at war within me that I can’t really decide whether to recommend it or not. I suppose it could be said you should probably go and see it and make up your own mind – and perhaps that is a recommendation of a sort. It might also be called high praise as well.

REASONS TO GO: Unusually ambitious and epic in scope. Pitt gives a bravura performance that may well be remembered at Oscar time.

REASONS TO STAY: Pretentious in places, non-linear storytelling appears as snippets of memory rather than cogent scenes which can be annoying.

FAMILY VALUES: Some of the material may be too intense for kids.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: When Burial is released next year, it will mark the first time in Malick’s nearly forty year directing career that he will have released films in consecutive years.

HOME OR THEATER: The scenes depicting the birth and death of the universe as well as the epoch of the dinosaurs should be seen on the big screen.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Eden Lake

2 thoughts on “The Tree of Life

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