The Tree of Life is an attempt to capture a snapshot of a human and our planet’s life through film and I think that Terrence Malick accomplishes this daunting task while leaving you with plenty to mull over after the credits role.
The film looks at the life of our protagonist, Jack, from his birth to his likely early teenage years. Scenes of Jack’s youth are surrounded by departures into the Earth’s origins and Jack’s later years as an adult. The future segments, relative to the main 50′s story line, are dreamlike, abstract, and seem to mainly take place on some meta-physical plain inside Jacks mind or beyond. To dive more into that might be spoiler, but the past segments you aren’t really privy too go way back; to the beginning of Earth’s and the Universe’s existence to be exact.
The film’s first forty minutes are mostly without dialogue, the majority of which is heard through voice over, but is stunningly beautiful and is accompanied by a fantastic music. Whether it’s Alexander Desplat’s score, a selection of classical music or a rousing piece of opera, the music in the film is perfectly paired with the astonishing images put on the screen. Whether Malick takes us into space and through a galaxy, intimately spying on Jack’s first crush or staring at Jack’s new born feet, we can’t look away.
The film’s flashback to the creation of Earth and the life on it is one of the most incredible things I have ever seen on film and you will see how Malick’s desire to make sure these scenes were perfect pays off in full. The planet’s infancy spans over millions of years, but we feel like we get to experience every moment. So many things happened over this plants young life, maturing into a world where humans eventually could thrive, and the tiniest of moments Malick captures speak so much to what our world and in habitants are capable of. The most seemingly inconsequential events can change the world to great effect or be only personally relevant and those ideas weigh heavily on our narrative of Jack’s young life.
As we watch Jack’s parents fall in love, get pregnant, and have him we get to seemingly get to experience his life along with him. It’s only a few minutes of film but we feel like we know where this boy came from and understand the life he is given. His father is stern, but only with the hope of making Jack, and his brothers, better men then he is. The boys’ mother is full of love and affection for them; giving them a break from the rigid rules of their father. Jack’s trajectory isn’t hard to guess but the levels at which he takes things will surprise most. The film does a great job at showing we never know how something will affect someone and that even the most sincere moments of love can be taken in ways you never would have thought possible.
The performances in the film are stellar and it starts first and foremost with a fantastic turn by Brad Pitt. As the father of the brothers, Pitt is stern, intimidating yet almost always loving. Always getting his message across without ever taking it too far, most of the time, the father struggles with his own issues of how best to approach raising his children and it is compelling to watch him try. The subtlety of the character is handled masterfully by Pitt in one of his finest performances to date. Nearly matching him is Jessica Chastain as the mother and she just exudes love for her children and is the perfect counter balance to Pitt’s father. Chastain handles the character’s desire to have her two cents but is forced to bite her tongue, as that is what society asked of a wife of the time, through glances that say everything and a compassion for the children that couldn’t feel more natural. The moments between Chastain and the kids when they are one on one without dad are full of affection and joy and Malick gets amazing work out of everyone involved. The boys are played by newcomers and while the younger two, Laramie Eppler and Tye Sheridan, do fine work, Hunter McCracken does a pretty great job leading the film as Jack. The character is running through a gauntlet of emotions, Malick giving him plenty of dark and joyful places to go to, and McCracken balances the character right along the needed lines. Sean Penn plays the elder version of Jack, and while he has little to screen time he affectively displays the characters feelings of pain.
Malick himself can’t help but be discussed here as well as this film says so much with so little. The dialogue in the film is light, as is with all his films (haven’t seen Badlands), but the characters are still able to tell us so much about who they are. Malick gets the absolute most out of his actors and edits the film perfectly to get the perfect moments for them. The scope of the film is as epic as a film can really get and I was enthralled with the creation of Earth sequence in the film. The scenes also seem to be very accurate representations of what scientists believe life was like as it evolved and Malick gets some shots here that are truly unbelievable. The beautiful imagery can’t be championed enough as it is an awe inspiring effort rivaled by few films in today’s cinema.
In the end, The Tree of Life is an epic and awe inspiring piece of art from Terrence Malick that can be appreciated on a number of levels. The photography, the acting, the music, the effects work, the art direction, it is all nearly impeccable. An abstract finale and lack of resolution to an early event in the film are bound to infuriate many, but I think the answers are there if you think on it a bit. All I can say is don’t let someone else tell you how to feel about this film. See it for yourself and let the experience affect you however it may; love it or hate it, it is an experience to have. For me the film is a masterpiece and one I won’t soon forget.