The Tree of Life is one of those rare films that you can use as a barometer to judge other’s tastes in films. If they dismiss it completely for its odd editing, non-linear structure, and perplexing nature that will tell you one thing. If they simply praise the look of the film and its challenging storytelling without noting its obvious flaws that will tell you something else.
The Tree of Life is a very good, but sometimes maddeningly frustrating, film. The director gives us the story of a family in Waco, Texas, in the 1950’s. We also get a much shorter look at one of the children (Sean Penn) years later. Interspersed with these tales is the origin of the universe and creation of life on Earth.
Those who don’t wish to be challenged by a film should give The Tree of Life a wide birth. You’ll need patience and a willingness to accept the kind of journey on which it wants to take you.
The main focus of the film is on the O’Brien family. Brad Pitt stars as the family’s harsh patriarch who struggles with raising his three sons and the loss of his own dreams along the way. In the film’s most focused attempt at a linear story the youngest son, Jack (Hunter McCracken), struggles against the nature of his father and the more graceful nature of his mother (Jessica Chastain). These themes of nature and grace and played on throughout the film as Jack finally learns to accept both his parents, and himself, for who they are.
As you’d expect from Terrence Malick, the look of the film is amazing. Every frame of the movie is lovingly crafted. However, there are several sequence, which although are visually pleasing, don’t serve the actual narrative. It’s almost as if the entire film were put together by a kid suffering from ADHD and a sugar rush.
At any point in the film (almost as if the director got bored with a visual sequence) he simply jumps to something else be it a clown, the universe, an attic (which only appears in these sequences), or a door in the middle of the desert. While most of these work visually, many are perplexing in terms of basic storytelling as the director’s sole attempt to blend the various pieces of the film together in the final sequence is only partially successful.
The Penn sequence (all of which may take up a total of 20 minutes) feels underdeveloped and, along with much of the early history of the universe, could have be left on the cutting room floor to leave a far more focused story (as Penn himself has admitted). However, Malick’s decision to try and showcase all life through the lens of a single family, though frustrating at times, works not only visually but emotionally as well.
Many of the film’s detractors will call it pretentious and self-absorbed, and, honestly, that’s a fair statement. However, Malick’s vision does deliver a cinematic experience unlike 99% of the film’s you will see this, or any other, year. Ultimately it succeeds in its attempt to create an emotional and philosophical journey about the nature of life.
The three-disc set includes Blu-ray, DVD, and digital copies of the movie, the trailer, and a 30-minute documentary on the making of the film and Malick’s legacy in film with appearances by Christopher Nolan and David Fincher.