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-EndFragment