Anyone familiar with the work of Terrence Malick (Badlands, The Thin Red Line) will have some idea (and no idea) of what to expect when sitting down to watch the director’s new, Palme d’Or winning film, “The Tree of Life”. His penchant for shots of nature, intercut with character driven scenes that may, or may not move the plot forward, have been taken to the ultimate extreme with this movie. It is not one that will engage you with an interesting plot or dialogue. There are no edge-of-your-seat action sequences or shocking twists. However, if watched with an open mind, the visually and conceptually stunning movie may be worth a look.
The film opens with a quote from the bible, specifically the book of Job, which poses what is essentially a response from God to the questions that will be asked by many characters throughout the film. If this were a Scorsese movie, the quote would go something like, “Where the f*** were you when I built my empire? Do you know who the f*** I am?” Since this isn’t anything close to Scorsese, the actual quote is a bit more eloquent.
The first real image we see is a multi-hued CGI flame that mysteriously utters the words “Mother” and “Brother”. We are then given a visual introduction to the 50’s suburban setting and two main characters played by Brad Pitt (father) and Jessica Chastain (mother). This is coupled with a voice-over that lays out one of the main themes of the movie, “There are two ways through life, the way of nature, and the way of grace…” Pitt and Chastain’s characters presumably represent these two ways, Pitt representing the harsh and self-serving aspects of “Nature”, and Chastain, the loving, giving, selfless characteristics of “Grace”.
We get a glimpse of Sean Penn, in the present day (a first for a Malick film, since all his previous ones have been period pieces) roaming around a modern high rise, the walls of which, seem to be closing in on him. A jump back in time shows Chastain’s character receiving a telegram that informs her of a death in the family.
It is at this point that the movie takes an abrupt turn. Segued through questions asked by Chastain’s character in voice-over, we are plunged into a 15 minute montage depicting the creation of the universe with only visuals and soaring opera music. Among the highlights are scenes of the cosmos, primordial sludge and even a few dinosaurs. (The dinos have a scene that hints at the Pitt character’s relationship with his son later in the “story”) The soundtrack has a grandness that enhances the special-effects and super-wide lens cinematography.
Many eons and operatic swells later, we are back in 1950’s suburbia and following the day to day activities of the aforementioned father, mother, and their three sons. We experience their lives as Penn’s character (who is the grown-up version of the eldest son) remembers it. There is not much continuity and each scene is very episodic which gives a kind of “God’s eye view” of the lives each of the characters lead. The performances of the actors are mostly physical and reactionary, which manages to be compelling within the dreamy confines of the movie.
I won’t go into detail about the rest of the film, as it is mostly composed of philosophic and metaphoric representations of ideas for which, the characters are symbols. We even get a glimpse of the celestial beach where inhabitants of the after-life have their eternal bonfire.
The movie is all about questions that it’s not even trying to answer. Many viewers, like the the group of senior citizens who were in the theater with me, will be left shaking their heads asking, “So wait…what!?”
Cinematography, Performances, Soundtrack
Plot, Slow Pacing