‘The Tree of Life’ is a slow burn. It is a film for the patient, and for their patience, they are rewarded.
The film had been on my radar for about a year, and life, as well as only the single art theater in town playing it for a limited run, kept me from seeing it until now. I’ve never particularly paid attention to Terrence Malick before, and did not go into this movie with the history of his work that many critics have. I did watch ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ again recently, and I think that it helped to prime me for the visuals in the film. Indeed, Douglas Trumbull returned to do visual effects for this film, as well as Peter and Chris Parks, who had previously worked on ‘The Fountain’, one of my favorite films that is also concerned with a different tree of life. Their work and Malick’s eye for a great shot made Every scene a bit of eye candy, whether Jessica Chastain tending to her children, or a volcanic eruption on early Earth.
‘Tree’ is about the universe, all encompassing. Beginning with the news of a son’s deaths, the movie jumps back through the creation of the Earth and life on the planet, including the rise of dinosaurs and their fall to a meteor strike. We are then returned to one of the other sons re-visitation of childhood, in Waco, Texas in the 1950’s. There is love and beauty on behalf of his mother, raising him and two other brothers with a tender hand. There is hardness also, from the firm embraces of his father, a stiffly paternal Brad Pitt. He is conflicted both at home and at work. He loves his sons but cannot express it in the same way as his wife. During a scene where he is teaching his sons to fight you can feel the tension, the play punching bordering on real fighting. His struggles in reconciling his love of music with his need to earn a living for his family fuel his inner turmoil, which most of us can attest to being stressors in our dealings with others in our own lives. A good portion of this pain resonated with me personally, which I imagine is what many of the positive reviewers of the film felt as well.
I’m not going to say that I fully felt Malick’s entire vision. I do agree with some of the detractors that there is a bit of pretension in the movie, and not enough of the substance is stated outright” I gathered it to be about the contention and duality of the different ways of being, whether tender or firm. When young Jack confides that he feels that he has become more his father than mother, it puts his scenes as an adult making a living as an architect into perspective, as memories of his childhood flood him while at work. Sean Penn, as an adult Jack, had far too little screen time, and I was yearning to feel more of how his childhood shaped him as a person. While ostensibly being about the formation and destruction of the planet, the film is really his story, and one that was entirely human.
Emotional, overwrought, beautiful and melancholy; ‘The Tree of Life’ is one of those films that can have tremendous impact on an individual, but if they do not feel it, then it can falloff and fall flat.