Tree of Life, The (United States, 2011)

June 09, 2011
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Tree of Life, The Poster

At its least, Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life is an ambitious slice of cinema by a major filmmaker. Striving for no less than the pinnacle of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Tree of Life falls short of masterful but retains a power that far too many motion pictures lack. It's about something and, even when it fails, it does so in a manner that is interesting and not infantile. At its core, this is a small, personal coming-of-age drama about the evolution of a child of the 1950s as he traverses the path of boyhood to adolescence. When it stays within those confines, The Tree of Life represents the best Malick has to offer. When it veers off onto tangents related to spirituality, cosmology, and the future incarnation of the central character, it is less successful. Nevertheless, the overall impression one has of the film is that it's breathtakingly beautiful and dramatically potent. That it falls short of being a modern masterpiece is no shame, especially since it's easily better than anything else I have seen thus far in 2011.

The majority of The Tree of Life follows Jack O'Brien (Hunter McCracken) as he struggles through the years separating the innocence of youth from the pragmatism of adulthood. The first-born of three boys, Hunter has the weight of expectations on his shoulders and he becomes resentful of it. He views his stern father (Brad Pitt) as a dictator and his mother (Jessica Chastain) as weak because she does not stand up to her husband. The older he grows, the more Jack becomes eaten up by anger until a breaking point is reached. Meanwhile, even though a majority of the day-to-day events are presented through Jack's eyes, there are chapters reserved for the perspectives of his parents, and these help round out the characterizations and allow viewers to understand that the O'Briens are what might be termed an "ordinary" family for those living in rural Texas during the 1950s. Mom is the nurturer and Dad doesn't spare the rod, but both love their children in their own ways, with Mom more apt to display her affection than Dad.

In addition to presenting this small, personal tale, Malick attempts to put things into a larger, metaphysical context. He's somewhat less successful in this endeavor than when evoking the "reality" of Jack's experiences growing up. The film occasionally flashes forward to an adult Jack (played by Sean Penn), who is seen navigating the concrete jungle of a city and is occasionally glimpsed wandering across a (metaphorical) desert-scape. Also, early in the proceedings, there is a 15-minute interlude that depicts the creation of Earth, the beginnings of life, the era of the dinosaurs, and the events presaging the rise of man. Although this sequence is enjoyable enough on its own rights, it feels like it belongs more as part of a History Channel/Discovery Channel documentary than as a cohesive segment of The Tree of Life. I understand what Malick is trying to accomplish, but I don't think he achieves his objective. The "creation" sequence does not expand the movie's horizons and reveal some greater truth about the place of the individual in the continuum of time and space. And the Sean Penn scenes offer little beyond an assurance that Jack grows up to be a man who's unsure of the meaning of life. They seem largely superfluous except as a way to provide Sean Penn with some screen time.

Unlike many period piece coming-of-age stories, The Tree of Life does not stake its success or failure on its ability to conjure feelings of nostalgia. Malick's depiction of a middle decade of the last century is ruthlessly accurate, illustrating the bad alongside the good without rose-tinting the lens. The film's strength is two-fold: it looks fabulous (one of the director's enduring hallmarks - the same claim can be made of his previous four efforts regardless of their other strengths and weaknesses) and it captures the essence of the era and the characters through tiny moments. Consider, for example, a scene in which Jack approaches his father while the man is working on the car. Once glance by the character (and the camera) at the jack elevating the car is enough to convey an immense amount of information. It could slip so easily... Nothing is said and nothing is done. But we understand. The Tree of Life overflows with instances like this. Potential throw-away scenes become building blocks. There are no "good" or "evil" individuals in Malick's movie - just human beings in all their hazy shades of gray.

The "modern day" Jack scenes are unremarkable except in that the photographic composition remains outstanding (there are a lot of low-angle shots which make the skyscrapers more imposing than they might otherwise be). Penn's version of the character is poorly developed; it's difficult to get beyond the actor. The danger in having a well-known thespian appear in this sort of part is that the performer never becomes buried in the character. As good an actor as Penn is, he is larger than life, and we find ourselves seeing "Sean Penn" not "Jack O'Brien." Contrast this with Brad Pitt, who has the time and opportunity to become submerged in his role.

Pitt is excellent, as is Jessica Chastain, a relatively fresh face with a number of upcoming credits on her resume. Pitt and Chastain, however, are upstaged by Hunter McCracken, whose heartfelt and credible work as Jack earns him recognition as one of the best young actors to arrive on the scene in recent memory. This is his feature debut; it will be interesting to see where the currents of his career take him. Regardless, this is as promising a beginning as one could hope for.

The most controversial element of The Tree of Life is the special effects-laden speculation about the history of the planet. Having employed the input of numerous scientists in crafting this segment, Malick at least is able to deflect criticism about inaccuracy and sensationalism (although, ironically, The Tree of Life can now be sold as a "true" summer movie with cataclysms, dinosaurs, and a mass extinction meteor strike). The inclusion of this interlude, however, feels artificial and forced. Many viewers will find themselves taken completely out of the experience. And the pretentious voiceover that occasionally occurs during this chapter fails in its goal of tying everything together.

One cannot speak of a Malick film without mentioning composition. Few living filmmakers pay as much attention to cinematography and music. The dialogue in The Tree of Life is sparse; composer Alexandre Desplat (using both material of his own creation and various classical pieces) fills in the gaps in which we might normally expect talking. His music, like the images brought to the screen by Emmanuel Lubezki, add color and depth to the emotions of the characters. They emphasize without being ostentatious. The Tree of Life looks and sounds as sublime as Malick's previous effort, The New World, but has a stronger emotional attachment. It is far more than style over substance.

Although the creation segment and the Sean Penn "future peeks" do not work (despite their thematic linking), they are neither off-putting nor do they detract greatly from the overall experience. This is a fine, emotionally rich, character-based tale with aspirations of being something greater. Robert Browning once wrote that "a man's reach should exceed his grasp." With The Tree of Life, Terrence Malick has taken that to heart.

Tree of Life, The (United States, 2011)

Director: Terrence Malick
Cast: Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, Jessica Chastain, Hunter McCracken
Screenplay: Terrence Malick
Cinematography: Emmanuel Lubezki
Music: Alexandre Desplat
U.S. Distributor: Fox Searchlight
Run Time: 2:18
U.S. Release Date: 2011-05-27
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence, Sexual Content)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1