The Tree of Life Review
Director: Terrence Malick
Writer: Terrence Malick
Stars: Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, Jessica Chastain
Studio: Fox Searchlight
Asking the big questions…all of them
Terrence Malick’s sixth film in 42 years is, without a doubt, the most ambitious film that will come out this year. In two-and-a-half hours, the writer/director tackles every big question about God through a mid-20th-century coming-of-age story, long shots of the natural world, heavenly voiceovers and yes, dinosaurs. It’s a beautiful, thoughtful, emotional, disorienting and sometimes frustrating film, and your enjoyment will depend on how much you buy into Malick’s very personal and very singular vision.
At the film’s core is the story of the O’Briens, a 1950s suburban family with three boys and a tragedy in its future. The unnamed father (Brad Pitt) is a devout Catholic with a very Protestant work ethic. He’s an engineer/foreman for a large factory, an organist for his church and a demanding parent—opposite the nurturing, carefree Mrs. O’Brien (Jessica Chastain). The oldest of the boys, Jack, takes the brunt of daddy’s harshness and seems the most likely to repeat his father’s mistakes.
Rather than staying with any one scene for any length of time, Malick gives us snatches of life with the O’Briens, cutting away periodically and at length to show stunning footage of creation, from the interstellar to the cellular, enough to inspire Slate to create this quiz: Terrence Malick Cutaway or Nature Documentary. He stops briefly during the age of dinosaurs, following a single creature on a bad day.
We also see one of the boys all grown up (Sean Penn), reflecting on the death of a brother, wandering from the world of corporate success to a walking dream state with figures from his past. It’s these elements—many of which are difficult to decipher or unpack—that had some audience members at Cannes booing, even while the festival was preparing to crown it with the Palme d’Or.
But between shots of bubbling lava, there’s a family that you come to care deeply about, including the very flawed patriarch. The themes are grand and punctuated by a sermon on Job in the middle: Why do bad things happen to good people? What’s the value of selflessness? Do the sins of the father need to be revisited by the son? Malick touches on creation and evolution, the existence of heaven and the purpose of life, but does so as much through the humble world of Waco, Texas, in summertime, as through the direct questions from a boy to his Creator that transition between epochs. It’s as much a meditation as a narrative, asking a tremendous amount of patience from viewers and rewarding that patience with something entirely new.