This is not one of those movies that is going to reel you in by its narrative. Essentially, the adult Jack (Sean Penn) is, in modern times, pondering his place in the world and the nature of man. His mind flashes back to his childhood, raised by a strict and often angry father (Brad Pitt) and a saintly mother (Jessica Chastain), along with his two younger brothers. The young Jack (Hunter McCracken) is very much like his father, while his brothers are very much like their mother. And then this happens:
|Dinosaurs and pretension, together at last|
And then we resume Jack's stroll down memory lane. No, you didn't miss anything. Jack then winds up in a ridiculously remote location with doubtlessly metaphorical significance, we see some dead people, and now the movie is over.
|Jack, busy ignoring that 127 Hours guy|
If absolutely nothing else, The Tree of Life is designed to elicit a response from its viewers. Confusion, hatred, love, whatever --- you're not left indifferent. I saw it in the theater this weekend, and I was the only one of my group that did not absolutely loathe the film. I could be wrong, but I believe my wife would have peed on Terrence Malick that night, given the chance. The audience groaned whenever a fade to black became a fade-in, and this is one of the few movies I have seen in a long while where the audience --- filled with people paying to see a Best Picture nominee marathon, mind you --- wound up talking amongst themselves and giggling inappropriately. I'm sure some people in that theater were absolutely blown away by Terrence Malick's most recent effort, but it was certainly not designed for the masses.
The acting in The Tree of Life is universally solid, even when you're not sure what the hell is going on. Brad Pitt handled a complex role as a do-it-yourself man that never did "it" good enough to be successful and happy; he is seen as an angry force of nature by Jack, but Pitt still makes this character sympathetic.
|Example: he doesn't eat this baby|
The acting was never going to be what made or broke The Tree of Life, though. That depended entirely on writer/director Terrence Malick. This is only the fifth film directed by Malick, although he has been directing since 1973, and it is based on a screenplay he began writing in the late 1970s. Needless to say, Malick has put a lot of thought into this film. Unfortunately for many viewers, none of those thoughts involved making this film easily comprehensible. There is no denying that the cinematography in this film is absolutely stunning. Even when you aren't sure what you are looking at, the images are impressive.
|Above: nucleotides, maybe?|
Having said all that, what the hell happened in this movie? It jumps from a disjointed, nonlinear narrative about some kids growing up in the 1950s to an extended break (anywhere from 15-3000 minutes --- I didn't think to time it) with no acting, voice-over, or anything --- just shot after shot of outtakes from a planetarium laser show. The images were gorgeous, but they didn't have any direct connection to the story. And then dinosaurs happen, and I could hear audience members mentally checking out.
|...aaaaand I'm done|
But let's ignore the cinematographic masturbation for a moment and focus on the rest of the film. It's still incredibly obtuse. There are many back-lit shots that the camera lingers on, but do not hold any explicit connection to the story at large. And I hope you like trees, because The Tree of Life makes sure you notice them by holding still life shots for a loooong time, like Malick was waiting for the Ents to awaken or something.
|Voice-over: "TREES, BITCHES!"|
If you hate The Tree of Life, I completely understand. Personally, I can only take so much existential crap before my body starts rejecting it, and I can believe that this film has more than most people would like to handle. However, I didn't quite hit my limit. I thought this was a fantastically shot movie with interesting performances and a refreshing amount of directorial intent. I didn't like it much, but I appreciate it for what it is. It's hard to find a movie that so so obviously odd, that is striving so hard to tell a particular point of view instead of just going after emotions with broad strokes; The Tree of Life will probably end up like The Velvet Underground and Nico --- not many people will like it, but those that do will make their own films, or at least look for more challenging cinema than what Hollywood has to offer. And that's a good thing for film as an art form and as a continuously evolving commercial product. What kept me from liking the movie (believe it or not) was not the "history of life" interlude, but the core story. I never connected to Jack; I found him repulsive as a child and completely uninteresting as an adult. The issues he's dealing with are fairly universal, but I never felt emotionally invested in this philosophical lecture or in the characters involved.
|Is Jack being shown affection or love? I don't really care|
I will recommend this movie to anyone who is a big fan of 2001: A Space Odyssey or The Fountain. Just don't make me watch it with you.
Now, if you have already seen the movie and are trying to figure out what it was about, here's my take:
Brian's story analysis of The Tree of LifeThe movie boils down to the premise introduced by Jessica Chastain's character at the very beginning, the struggle between Grace and Nature; Grace (embodied by mommy) is kind and loving and wants everything and everybody to be nice and recognize the glory all around us, while Nature is competitive and very much based in the daily struggle of man. Or you can think of it as Big Picture vs. Little Picture, whatever works for you.
|You can also dumb the message down to "don't sweat the small stuff"|
Nants ingonyama bagithi baba! Sithi uhhmm ingonyama!