Imagine you’re a mother or father. You send your son to a school where English is the most important subject, weighted three times as heavily as any other class. And he returns home one day with a report card. You scan it. The top of the card reads “English: F.” A colossal failure. But then you look at the rest of the card and see the remaining grades. Social Studies: A+. Science: A+. Math: A+. Religion: A+. Physical Education: A+. Outside of English, he’s an absolutely flawless scholar. But the most important thing – the foundation of everything at this hypothetical school – is completely and utterly a mess. Ask yourself – how would you feel about the report card? Are you willing to write off his English work as something the teacher just didn’t understand? Or can you not ignore the most central tenet to his work?
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the best possible way I can begin to explain The Tree Of Life.
This is a mystifying film. It may very well be the most beautifully shot movie I have seen in my relatively short lifetime. It is scored flawlessly by Alexandre Desplat. It is acted to perfection, largely by Brad Pitt and a young boy named Hunter McCracken. Its attention to sound detail – in its babbling brooks, its birds out of sight in the sky, its piano melodies – is incredible. Its direction, by the enigmatic Terrence Malick, is top-notch.
And for a large part of the movie, it doesn’t make one damn bit of sense.
There is a plot here. Or so I think. Every movie has to have a plot, right? We begin in Waco, Texas in the 1950s, with a family under the watchful eye of Mr. O’Brien (Pitt), a tough-love Navy veteran, and Mrs. O’Brien (Jessica Chastain), whose motherly brand of love seems naive at times. Hang on. Maybe we don’t begin in the 1950s. Maybe it’s the 60s. I’m not sure. But after a few minutes of non-linear narrative and quick cuts, we’re transferred to present-day New York, where Jack O’Brien (Sean Penn, who has essentially no purpose in this movie, but we’ll get to that), the second(?)-oldest of three sons, now works as an architect somewhere in a skyscraper.
And then the Earth is created.
Sorry, did you not catch that last part? Let’s try again.
We go from Brad Pitt in the 1950s – to Sean Penn, his son, in the present day – to the creation of the world.
All clear now? Good. Because I’m still not.
With flickering lights and a parade of whispering voices, Malick devotes 20 or so minutes to his depiction of Earth’s creation. We are in space on moment and an icy domain the next, underwater with a gang of hammerhead sharks and by a river with a small group of dinosaurs. And then an asteroid slams into the planet, and we are back in Waco with the O’Briens.
This is a remarkably striking sequence in two major ways. It is a visual feast for the eyes, filled with a contrast of bright colors and darkness, shot with the precision of an IMAX documentary on the solar system and the ocean and the prehistoric era. And it is nonsense. Why are there so many whispered existential questions? What is this doing in a movie about a 1950s family in Waco? Doesn’t this belong in that IMAX theatre? We can only speculate as to Malick’s reasons for including this sequence, which leads up to the birth of the O’Brien’s first son – perhaps he wants to show how a vast sequence of events has led to this one child. Perhaps he just wants to be really artsy. Perhaps he wants us to question the existence of God – or perhaps he himself is questioning it? I have no idea. But maybe that’s the point. Maybe everyone’s supposed to form their own idea.
And then we are back to the meat of the story in Waco, where the three O’Brien sons grow up under the contrasting set of parents. The film features questions about the ways of nature vs. grace, and it’s clear who is who in the family struggle. Pitt’s father represents nature, the concept that meaning well can only take you so far. “It takes a fierce will to get ahead in this world,” he proclaims. “If you’re good, people take advantage of you.” Chastain’s mother, who spends much of the film in silence (although in fairness, much of the film itself is in silence), is the polar opposite. “The only way to be happy,” she believes, “is to love. Unless you love, your life will flash by.”
(I want to jump away from the review here to make a point which I believe deserves its own paragraph. I have seen Brad Pitt in a good deal of films to this point, including this year’s Moneyball, and I have never seen a better performance than this one. How Moneyball got him every nomination in the world while this role was largely ignored is a complete mystery to me. This might – and I say might because I haven’t totally considered it yet – be my favorite single performance of any actor in 2011.)
The story is mostly linear, though it’s sometimes hard to tell, in the meaty middle of the piece. It largely follows the three boys and their everyday experiences inside and outside the family. There’s more than a hint of rebellion, especially in young Jack (played extraordinarily by first-time actor Hunter McCracken), who’s clearly been burdened by his father and the family tension. It’s tension that manifests itself in some scarily real scenes – witness Pitt’s reaction to to a disobedient son at a family dinner or see McCracken nervously break in to a neighbor’s house. It all plays like one giant home video – and it makes up the best chunk of the movie. What Pitt, Chastain, and the three boys can do without saying much is astonishing, in a film that may even have less dialogue than Drive.
But the film has to end somehow. And it’s a seemingly colossal misfire, back to Penn’s older Jack in a skyscraper, with dreamt-up visions that seem to be a desert, a beach, and an afterlife. Or are they dreams? Is Malick just throwing in random symbolism here? Much like the film’s beginning, you likely won’t have a clear idea of everything that’s taking place. Which brings us back to an earlier point I made – why was Penn in this film? He may not perform a single line of dialogue while on camera, rather, making his presence felt with random non sequitur whispers scattered throughout. And lest you call me an idiot, take a listen to Penn himself, from a French interview conducted in August:
“The screenplay is the most magnificent one that I’ve ever read but I couldn’t find that same emotion on screen. A clearer and more conventional narrative would have helped the film without, in my opinion, lessening its beauty and its impact. Frankly, I’m still trying to figure out what I’m doing there and what I was supposed to add in that context! What’s more, Terry himself never managed to explain it to me clearly.”
Look…if Sean Penn doesn’t understand what the hell is going on, I likely don’t either.
But there’s a second part to Penn’s thoughts on the film:
“It’s a film I recommend, as long as you go in without any preconceived ideas. It’s up to each person to find their own personal, emotional or spiritual connection to it. Those that do generally emerge very moved.”
And perhaps that’s the beauty of it. Maybe we’re not all supposed to understand The Tree of Life in the way Terrence Malick personally envisions it. The family scenes will likely contain at least a few moments for everyone that bring back memories of childhood, or perhaps for those older, adulthood. There’s much to potentially identify with in Malick’s portrait of this 1950s family. It’s the creation and surrealist aspects that don’t quite hit their mark screenplay-wise – but boy, are they gorgeous to look at. Whether or not you understand what’s going on in The Tree of Life – and trust me, there will be equal parts of both – the cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki is simply extraordinary. It is as astonishing a film to look at as I’ve ever seen, a sort of artsy blockbuster in its wide sweeps, vibrant colors, long takes, short cuts, and everything in between. Shot after shot from the film will resonate in your mind after watching, whatever you think of the finished product.
This is a film that I still don’t understand. I questioned whether I had been illegally slipped some sort of hallucinating drug at the beginning. And yet it hasn’t left my mind today, and it likely won’t for quite some time. What you get out of The Tree of Life likely won’t be what anyone else got out – it seems meant to be a personal experience for anyone who sets eyes on it. But I have to recommend it if, for nothing else, the sheer ambition of it all. Everything works but the script. Sure, that’s like saying everything works for a baseball player except his hitting. But there’s a place to admire and be dazzled by Gold Glovers everywhere.
(Oh, and if you’re wondering about the film’s title? All I’ll say is this – if you want to get really drunk, play a drinking game. Every time there’s a direct shot of the tree, drink. Enjoy making it to the next day with that strategy.)