THE TREE OF LIFE – The Review
The easiest way to describe THE TREE OF LIFE would be to call it an exploration of the meaning of life, but anyone could — and likely will — make that assumption without hesitation. What is far more profound, far more interesting, is what the film does for the individual viewer. For myself, the film was an exquisite sensory escape into one of the most spiritual cinematic experiences I have ever had. And by “spiritual” I do not necessarily mean religious, but some viewers may certainly interpret the film in that way. This is perfectly acceptable.
The story centers on the fictional middle-class O’Brien family in the 1950′s. Brad Pitt (THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON) portrays the father, a tough hard-working man with an old-world sense of how to raise his three boys. Jessica Chastain, who had primarily done television work in series such as ER and LAW & ORDER, portrays Mrs. O’Brien, a kinder and gentler mother with a more modern sense of nurturing and being open with her boys.
THE TREE OF LIFE was written and directed by Terrence Malick, perhaps best known for his film THE NEW WORLD (2005) about 17th century explorer John Smith and his relationship with the Native Americans, and most applauded for his film THE THIN RED LINE (1998) about the Guadalcanal conflict of WWII. Malick is a filmmaker who works mysteriously and meticulously. Malick also works slowly; with as much as 20 years between projects, as was the case after completing his second feature film DAYS OF HEAVEN (1978).
While the story is primarily about the O’Brien family’s struggle with a tragic loss, the larger scope of the film takes on a cosmic scale. THE TREE OF LIFE is neither a science-fiction film nor a religious manifest, but more of an experiment on the scale of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. Juxtaposing the intimate lives of the O’Brien family against the infinite time-line of the universe, Malick interweaves their path with that of the emergence of life in our known universe. He does this with astounding beauty and emotional impact.
THE TREE OF LIFE is a spellbinding, however hypnotically slow, journey into philosophical territory. I found myself fully immersed in the sights and sounds of the film, which take the viewer deeper than the O’Brien’s story. Malick’s impeccable vision is enhanced greatly by the cinematography of Emmanuel Lubezki (CHILDREN OF MEN, THE NEW WORLD) and a team of five editors who painstakingly constructed Malick’s endlessly complex mosaic of imagery and meaning. Wide-angle landscapes and carefully constructed close-ups connect the viewer with the immensity of the universe as captured on film. Further enhancing THE TREE OF LIFE is the awe-inspiring score from Alexandre Desplat (THE KING’S SPEECH) who gives the film much of the spiritual sentimentality without overstepping into a strictly religious tone. His palette of sound incorporates the classical essence of choral and orchestral with the powerful sounds of nature. Both the images and the score emphasize this idea of life and death, nature and spirituality intertwined.
Brad Pitt once again shows the audience he is an actor, not just a movie star. His performance convincingly conveys the struggle of parenting in the 1950′s, a struggle between his own experience growing up and the desire to ensure his children will be successful. However, the O’Brien vein throughout the film is very much the story of their eldest son Jack, played by Hunter McCracken. Sean Penn (MILK) portrays the adult Jack, a vein that splits off from his childhood but is perhaps the weakest element in THE TREE OF LIFE, holding the least amount of screen time and the most disjointed story arc. Jessica Chastain — aside from being breathtaking on screen, with much credit to Lubezki — also delivers a wonderful performance. Chastain captured Mrs. O’Brien’s torment, which clashes with her innate passion for life, and does so with a minimal amount of dialogue.
While I am certain not every viewer will appreciate THE TREE OF LIFE, I recommend engaging in the film as an experience, more than simply a movie. Prepare yourself in this way, with an open mind and open heart… leave your expectations and distractions at the door… and allow yourself to take in the beauty and wonder that is THE TREE OF LIFE.