CAST: Brad Pitt, Hunter McCracken, Jessica Chastain, Sean Penn, Joanna Going, Fiona Shaw, Jackson Hurst, Pell James, Crystal Mantecon, Lisa Marie Newmyer, Jennifer Sipes; DIRECTOR: Terrence Malick; WRITER: Terrence Malick; GENRE: Drama; RUNNING TIME: 138 minutes.
Technical Assessment: 4
Moral Assessment: 4
CINEMA Rating: For viewers age 13 and below with parental guidance.
Young boy Jack O’Brien (Hunter McCracken) grows up with two brothers in Waco, Texas, in the 50s, with a disciplinarian father (Brad Pitt) and a forgiving mother (Jessica Chastain). He wants to be a good son, and he is, but time comes when he feels he cannot be anymore. He is confused, torn between his love for his parents and his ever growing need to assert himself and defy them. He begins to resent his father, and to scoff at his mother for her inability to stand up to her husband. He gets angry with himself as he slowly sees he is becoming everything he ought not to be. In the middle of all that Jack begins to feel incomprehensible stirrings within himself but circumstances would pressure him into silence about them. He perceives power in his father, in many things around him, and in himself; fascinated by power he wants to test the limits of his own. His bottled up anger makes him contemplate dangerous moves—including killing his father. On the brink of adolescence Jack is unaware that he is treading a crack in the earth that separates the innocence of his boyhood from the expediency of manhood.
The Tree of Life opens with hazy, fiery movements, like mesmerizing gaseous forms dancing against a dark infinity. A man’s voice tells us there are two ways to go through life, “the way of nature, or the way of grace.” From that alone the viewer can tell this is not going to be a popcorn movie. It is not even a movie, an art film, or an Oscar contender. It is a meditation on human existence—inspired, not just crafted. Even if it were the only work one has seen of director Terrence Malick, it would say enough for one to gauge the extent of Malick’s genius in his chosen medium. He has control over the story and the script, he is in harmony with his cinematographer, and he coaxes the best out of his actors. He is brilliant at utilizing music to rub in his message—Smetana’s Die Moldau, for one, evokes the ephemeral quality of existence, and when heard as one watches a silk lingerie being carried by the current down a river, spawns an experience that has to be felt in the guts to be understood. That is but a few seconds long; imagine the whole opus. The Tree of Life has the power to captivate your senses and your mind all at once, to take you out of yourself to be willingly lost and yet alive in some unknown space. In one word: stunning.
Some films are just too sublime to be fairly judged. The Tree of Life is one of them. It is just too beautiful for words. With images it tries to grasp all of existence by finding the meaning and deciphering the mysteries of a few puny lives. Where have we come from? Where are we going? Such humbling questions. The answers may vary from viewer to viewer, but perhaps not all viewers would care.