There’s a very terse scene in Terence Malick’s long gestating “The Tree of Life” that, for better or worse, is an extremely apropos summary of how I felt about much of the film. In the scene, Mr. O’Brien (Pitt), a prototypical hard-ass 1950’s era father, is literally demanding the attention of his wife and three boys at the dinner table as he tells one of his many, seemingly pointless stories that tie into his feelings about life. The story gets off track and rambles and O’Brien gradually loses each child’s attention as well as the attention of his wife and then finally, his own temper. To O’Brien the story is key in understanding life as he understands it and he wants to be heard and understood. To his family, it’s just one of many tedious parables that they endure under threat of physical or emotional violence. While I never found “The Tree of Life” all that tedious, nor did it threaten me in any way, it did tend to test my endurance and many times I felt as though Malick’s extremely personal film was so personal it bordered on alienating.
Yet even writing that paragraph fills me with the feeling that not only am I not doing the film justice, I’m also dismissing a piece of art that’s so big, intriguing and beautiful it’s hard not to keep reflecting back on the scenes both visually and in terms of their text and to want to dig deeper into what they mean. “The Tree of Life” almost defies criticisms (particularly after only one viewing) and rating it with a star or an upward or downward appendage is like slapping ketchup on your filet mignon. This is big stuff and while I’ll readily admit I mentally checked out a few times during the long, long run time, I still can’t quite put my finger on what it all means and as such, I can’t dismiss it altogether. But I also can’t say I really liked it all that much either.
The film opens with a gaseous cloud floating in endless space. Soon, forces cause it to swirl and it attracts particles and before you know it, BANG! It morphs and changes and the Earth is created. Yes, Malick goes there and then to primordial ooze and into the birth of life much closer to what we recognize today. It is in these scenes, along with eloquent talk of how inside of each of us there is the rougher “nature” and the more forgiving “grace,” that the premise of not only this film is formed, but also an auteuristic statement that anyone paying attention to Malick’s films probably caught a long time ago.
Soon we meet Jack O’Brien (Penn), a modern day man who gives new meaning to the word brooding. It’s Penn at his hang-doggiest and his performance is the only thing that really, truly bugged me about the whole film. I’m all for a downer dude on the screen but Penn as Jack gives us nothing to work with in terms of relating to him and seeing Penn wordlessly mope around was irritating. We know little about him as a man other than he seems estranged from his wife (or girlfriend) and sulkily works in huge glass buildings. He seems content to not throw rocks but should perhaps throw down a few prozac instead. Soon we flashback to suburban Texas in the 1950s with Jack as a child (played wonderfully by Hunter McCracken) and this is where “The Tree of Life” really takes hold.
The scenes of young Jack living and growing amidst the push of his aggro-patriarch and the pull of his sweet, ethereal mother (Chastain) are the meat and potatoes of the film and viewers spend most of their time with Jack and his brothers. The gray area life Jack experiences as a child has apparently made him incapable of feeling happy or sad later in life. Or… something. It’s never all that clear what’s bugging adult Jack and that again caused me to wonder if Malick had missed the mark or I had missed the clues. Again, Malick is intrigued by the yin and yang in all of us but does that inner strife mean we’re just going to be super grumpy forevermore?
While Terrence Malick has never been big on interviews, a quick peek into what is known of him shows he grew up in rural Texas in the 1950s and endured the loss of a brother at an early age. These are key points in this film as well so it seems clear the film, particularly the 1950’s scenes, are highly autobiographical. I found them poetic and dreamy and their near lackadaisical flow from one to the other cast a sort of dream state over me and many times I found myself hearkening back to my own boyhood adventures. But, is that a good thing? Shouldn’t a viewer be so rapt with what’s onscreen that they can’t think of anything but the movie playing before their eyes? In many cases, I’d say yes. But with “The Tree of Life,” it’s as if Malick was tapping into my personal past and I found myself relating to young Jack’s rebellious nature and was recalling memories from my childhood that I hadn’t thought of in years. While I found it interesting the film had dredged up so much, I normally prefer to reflect like that after the movie is over. And then there’s those dinosaurs.
Yes, everyone seems to be making a big to-do about the inclusion of some dinos and yup, they’re there. They look cool and I’m honestly not entirely certain what purpose they serve. Throughout the film we see nature cruelly picking on weaker natured beasts and, again, this is a running theme of Malick’s career. But the dinosaurs didn’t seem to fit. In fact a lot of what Malick’s getting at here (or what I think he’s getting at) doesn’t seem to fit but this is his story, it fits for him and pointing a critical finger for that just seems wrong. The nature (or risk) of art this personal is that it’s important to the artist but may or may not resonate with the viewer.
But much like the internal struggle between nearly every living thing in the film, I find myself struggling to know if I actually liked “The Tree of Life” or simply appreciated the attempt. Every time I think I hated it, I recall a bunch of scenes that are nearly perfect or a memory of a certain shot will come back to me and feel nearly overwhelming. Back and forth it goes in my mind like a meta version of the theme of the film. At the end of the day, I think it’s a good thing to have to continuously chew on a film but then again, does this mean I have to pay for the two and a-half hour meal all over again to fill in the blanks? “The Tree of Life” is something different and should really be seen on the big screen, just don’t expect the secrets of life to be revealed although we do see how it all began and how it might end. At least through one man’s eyes.