By: Mark Di Stefano
Rating: 8 out of 10
Terrence Malick’s visual opus of life, death, loss of innocence, and everything in between took many years to come to theaters. The film was delayed a premiere at the Cannes Film Festival numerous times in the past due to post-production difficulties, but premiered at this year’s festival, where it took home the Palme d’Or, the highest prize awarded. The Tree of Life, despite its shortcomings, earns its award and the praise that has followed.
Despite how well received the film is it’s hard to describe what’s really going on in the film. With numerous biblical and scientific themes surrounding the text it can be hard to grasp what’s going on at times (the film even opened with a provoking passage from Job 38:4-7). At the core of the film is a strained relationship between a father and son that stretches back to the 1950’s. In present day time, Jack (Sean Penn, in a brief but powerful performance) reminiscences on the troubled relationship he had with his father, Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt), when he was a kid growing up in a small Texas town. His mother (Jessica Chastain) and brothers are the only aids he has as he struggles to grow and adapt under the stern ways of his father.
The film is not linear in the classic Hollywood storytelling format, not even close with the constant switching between two periods and interludes of symbolic art representing stages of life. Towards the beginning, there is a near 15 minute operatic-like interlude depicting the evolution of life on earth with the principle characters voicing questions pertaining to their own lives, which is very reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick’s work (i.e. 2001: A Space; Odyssey). The fact that a huge portion of the film is told through more visuals than words can be a drawback to moviegoers, especially with the religious undertones present in these scenes.
However, its weakness can also be its strength. The film is a visual tour-de-force of powerful imagery. Terrence Malick (who also penned the film) uses the camera to pull the viewer in, becoming personally invested in the film. He managed to create something beautiful using the simplest setting possible. This is by far the best looking film of the year, thanks to famed Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (Children of Men, Malick’s The New World). Along with the brilliant score of Alexandre Desplat, the film takes your senses to the limit, creating some of the most enriching moments ever captured on the screen.
The performances in this film marvel that of any film released this year. The child actors are the soul of the film. Hunter McCracken (who plays Young Jack) delivers in his breakthrough performance. His caliber as an actor, especially at a young age, already matches that of his older colleagues. Brad Pitt gives one of the best performances of his career with just enough integrity and grit that it creates sheer brilliance. Jessica Chastain plays Mrs. O’Brien with tender delicacy, and is a talent to watch in the years to come.
The Tree of Life is a film that has many meanings and each person will come out of the theater with their own unique experience. It could frustrate one person while enlightening the next. However, while watching it, we go through our own personal journey of our own lives. The film is long and drags at some parts, but when given the chance, it will be one of the most rewarding times you had at the movies. The film looks like a piece of art, and each frame represents a delicate portrait of adolescent life. It also has Oscar potential, likely to be nominated for Best Director, Cinematography, Original Score, along with many other categories.
The Tree of Life is one of the most important releases in recent memory, and has the potential of going down as a modern classic. However, like most classics, they garner much criticism when released, and it’s most likely to be skipped by so many due to the fear of not liking its experimental, artistic nature. Over time, the brilliance of this film will unravel.