'The Tree of Life' could be more lively


The Tree of Life is one of the most dif­fi­cult films I’ve seen in a long time.

When I walked in­to the theat­er, I didn’t real­ize that the first 30 to 60 minutes would be more like a Na­tion­al Geo­graph­ic or Dis­cov­ery Chan­nel doc­u­ment­ary in­stead of a fea­ture film. Ser­i­ously, when the di­no­saurs ap­peared on­screen, I was like “what is go­ing on here?”

What seemed like very long stretches of time pass by with ab­so­lutely no dia­logue, just mu­sic play­ing in the back­ground or whis­pers of single words. So be sure you’re wide awake, or at least have some caf­feine handy.

Fur­ther con­found­ing things for me was when the ac­tu­al “story” began, and it offered little to no co­hes­ive nar­rat­ive.

That is the geni­us (or mad­ness?) of dir­ect­or Ter­rence Malick, who is known for his com­plex and non-lin­ear film­mak­ing style in such movies as The New World and The Thin Red Line.

The Tree of Life has some pretty fam­ous names in the cast, in­clud­ing Brad Pitt and Sean Penn, but their roles are far from typ­ic­al and they’re not on­screen all that of­ten, es­pe­cially Penn.

After the doc­u­ment­ary-like be­gin­ning, the movie takes you back to the 1950s when life moved a lot slower, kids didn’t have all the elec­tron­ic gad­gets around today, and when the man of the house de­man­ded to be called “fath­er” in­stead of “dad.” The movie picked up steam dur­ing this time, though there were still many quiet stretches.

The story cen­ters on a rur­al Texas fam­ily — the dad Mr. O’Bri­en (Pitt), mom Mrs. O’Bri­en (Jes­sica Chas­tain), and their three boys. It is es­pe­cially in­ter­est­ing to watch the fam­ily dy­nam­ic from the per­spect­ive of the old­est boy, Jack (Hunter Mc­Crack­en), who serves as the nar­rat­or. As an aside, Penn plays the adult ver­sion of Jack, re­flect­ing on his child­hood.

I en­joyed Pitt’s per­form­ance play­ing against type as a stern, dis­cip­lin­ari­an fath­er. He’s of­ten un­likable and some­times treats his fam­ily cruelly, but he has some mo­ments of bond­ing with his sons that make you for­get that you don’t care for him.

I was thor­oughly con­fused dur­ing a good bit of the movie, but, upon some post-screen­ing re­flec­tion (and In­ter­net read­ing), I un­der­stood and even ap­pre­ci­ated what Malick ac­com­plished with the film.

The Tree of Life is close to two and a half hours long and very slow-paced. If the movie wer­en’t so long, I’d prob­ably watch it again to see if I could glean a great­er un­der­stand­ing, but I’m just not will­ing to give up that much time for a movie I only might like bet­ter the second time around.

While The Tree of Life is an in­ter­est­ing and even thought-pro­vok­ing film, it def­in­itely isn’t my kind of movie. It doesn’t par­tic­u­larly an­swer any of life’s big ques­tions, but if you’re the type who likes to pon­der the mean­ing of life and the be­gin­ning of the uni­verse, this movie presents a per­fect op­por­tun­ity for two and a half hours of re­flec­tion.

Oth­ers may be bet­ter en­ter­tained by the nu­mer­ous big-budget sum­mer flicks cur­rently or soon to be in theat­ers. ••

Movie Grade: B-


You can reach at shorbrook@bsmphilly.com.

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