Terrance Malik’s The Tree of Life is one of those movies that has gotten a reputation as being a “love it or hate it” kind of film. And it’s easy to see why. With its non-linear storytelling, the apparent lack of an easy to digest plot, and characters that are kind of complicated, the film can be viewed as a tangled mess of beautiful images with very little payoff. At the screening Julie and I attended, there were about four people who walked out at various points, while the rest of the audience sat either transfixed, or in a state of bewilderment. Me? My initial reaction was that this was a film where the director didn’t spoon feed the audience, and some choice interludes left me a bit perplexed, but overall I thought The Tree of Life was an ambitious film that was trying to resolve some weighty issues.
The shell of the plot centers on Jack (played as an adult by Sean Penn and by Hunter McCracken as a boy) trying to make sense of his existence after his younger brother dies. The story also focuses on Jack’s parents (Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain) who raise three young boys in Waco, Texas — a place that looks quite bucolic — and their seemingly tranquil early years of early childhood to the more difficult years as the boys become tweens.
Malick’s film has two overarching themes that pervade the movie: the search for God’s plan amidst tragedy, and the frustrations and aspirations of middle class whites who look to God for help in the material world. Malick throws a curveball at the audience with a 20 minute interlude that has Jack’s mother calling out for God as images of planets, microscopic organisms and even dinosaurs are shown. I read that interlude as the director saying that in the grand scheme of this limitless universe where massive destruction and fragile creation takes place, the questions to God coming from a mother grieving the loss of her son seem insignificant — especially when Malick shows the massive meteor that destroyed the dinosaurs (and other life) on a scale that, well, we humans have never witnessed.
But after that sequence, the movie follows the family through the early years of raising infants to, as I said earlier, the difficult tween years. The mother in the film is the calming force in the lives of both the husband and the children, while the father is more conflicted. Brad Pitt is a guy who aspired to greatness in music, but never quite “made it.” Instead, he tried to find an alternate path to success. However, ideas for patented inventions got tangled up in court, a trip to other countries to sell his ideas fell flat, and his own frustration with God over doing what God asks, but never getting what he wants, leads him to lash out at his kids from time to time. His temper and intimidating demeanor is also coupled with his genuine love for his kids and wife, so while his family dreads having him around when he’s in one of his moods, Pitt also confesses to them that he’s sorry for being such a hard ass.
Jack, as an adult, is plagued by questions about the death of his brother. Unlike his father, he becomes successful in his career as an architect, but inside he’s empty. Like his father and mother, Jack as child and as an adult wants to know why bad things happen to good people? Why does tragedy befall us when we do what we believe God wants us to do? The answer is never really given to us, but Malick does hint that answers to such questions are revealed after death – where loved ones are shown greeting each other with hugs and knowing smiles on a barren beach. You can read those images how you want, but I took it to mean that you should enjoy the time you have with each other while we’re alive and not be tortured by the passing of our loved ones by blaming God for sorrow and pain we feel for those who are no longer with us. The memories of them should remind us of what was important, and not what cause us further pain.
Would I recommend this film? That’s a tough one. It’s clearly not for everyone, but if you like filmmakers who take you on a journey (even if you have no idea where that journey is going), you’ll find this film thought-provoking. But beware, Malick does not make the The Tree of Life easy to comprehend at times, and if you like movies where you don’t have to work to follow the plot, it’s best to avoid this one.
And in keeping with the “He said/She said” blogging fun Julie and I are doing, you can read her review by clicking HERE.