The story of a Midwestern family, the O’Briens, in the 1950’s, the film follows the life journey of the eldest son, Jack, through the innocence of childhood to his disillusioned adult years as he tries to reconcile a complicated relationship with his father (Brad Pitt). Jack (Sean Penn) finds himself a lost soul in the modern world, seeking answers to the origins and meaning of life while questioning the existence of faith.
The TREE OF LIFE is superficially about the above rather vague synopsis sourced from the movie’s press kit, but it’s also The Movie About Everything. Director Terrence Malick worked on the story over many years and has attempted to tell an impressionistic tale about the life of one man and one family, stretching back over three generations. But because Malick wanted this account to be deeply spiritual, Jack’s ruminations include the Birth of the Universe. And there’s also a sequence with dinosaurs.
THE TREE OF LIFE has much story, but little in the way of coherent narrative. Things happen to the O’Briens, but the events are shown to us as an intermittent montage, rather than the usual practice of unfolding shaped dramatic sequences. Time has no real meaning. Adult Jack’s life is mixed in with childhood events and scenes from prehistory.
The only way to see the movie is to let it wash over you. Attempting to impose meaning, order or structure on two hours and twenty minutes of brilliantly shot moments is futile. It’s as though the audience has been given a number of pearls but the string to join them isn’t part of the deal.
Some will find this fascinating; after all this is an expensively and handsomely mounted art film from a master filmmaker. Others, like myself, will decline the challenge of making sense of the profusion of stunning images and tiny moments. I don’t mind making some of the connections when I see a film, but TREE OF LIFE was too DIY for this audience member.
Comparisons have been drawn between this film and Kubrick’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY and this is apt. TREE OF LIFE also attempts to span time and grasps at the Great Mystery. Ultimately I found 2001 more rewarding, but I have also had many more years to process the Kubrick film. As a side-note, 2001’s veteran special effects guru Douglas Trumbull worked on the creation of TREE OF LIFE’s Birth of the Universe sequence.
One aspect that distracted me from Malick’s spiritual and universal journey was the narrow focus on the O’Briens. Obviously they represent a meaningful time and a place for the director, but I found their life detailed yet simplistic. I felt they were a Norman-Rockwell-cover-of-the-Saturday-Evening-Post creation. That is to say, they glowed with the beauty of memory and idealisation. All of the adults–except for a brief glimpse of the church congregation and Fiona Shaw as the grandmother–appear to be child-rearing age. I also took away an impression that in the mid-west, in the 1950’s, all the mothers were smoking hot.
Jessica Chastain plays the mother of the three O’Brien boys. Her character begins the film with a rambling voice-over that says–among other things–that enjoying nature is the opposite of attaining a state of grace. Yet Mother O’Brien is often shown bathed in sunlight. She seems to spend an inordinate amount of time outdoors playing games with the boys. Is she saying one thing and doing another? And where does she find the time to raise her boys and do the housework? All her activities seem ethereal and joyous. She hangs out the washing while the wind and reflected light emphasise her Pre-Raphaelite beauty. We don’t see her sweating over a laundry tub. She doesn’t need the labour-saving devices of the Atomic Age. This woman is not beset with Betty Friedan’s “Feminine Mystique”. She is fulfilled by motherhood and it makes her look amazing.
On the other hand, Brad Pitt as the father is hard on his oldest son Jack. He is forever attempting to impress his world view on the boy. Always correcting his attitude and telling the child what he is doing is not good enough. These scenes have a greater believability about them. This painful and awkward relationship marks Jack into his adult life.
In the end, I was dazzled, yet could barely think about what I was seeing; I found it difficult to feel anything for the O’Briens, The Universe and Everything. A quick look around the ‘net shows me that this is not the case for everyone. Many critics have rated this a perfect movie. It also won the Palme D’or at Cannes this year.
If you want to see a big film that does not spoon-feed the audience with easy answers and takes you on a journey through Time and Space, then TREE OF LIFE is that experience.
TREE OF LIFE opens in Australia today. It runs for 138 minutes. I rated it 2.5/5.