A few years ago I would have given this film a "Bruce Banner's Dad," but now it gets a "Vader." I have no explanation.
The Tree of Life is certainly Malick’s most difficult film. It is very disjointed and lacks any semblance of a normal narrative structure. Anyone watching just to see Brad Pitt or Sean Penn’s latest will likely turn it off in less than an hour. Those who go in knowing it is Malick are much more likely to enjoy it, though that isn’t a guarantee. While the film isn’t told in a typical, straightforward way, it is still quite easy to pick up on the themes of the film. (Stop reading if you want to know absolutely nothing about the plot of this film, but, to be honest, who is reading this that hasn’t watched the film?) With a title like The Tree of Life, this film obviously deals with life and death, but also with the importance of one’s childhood. One (me, for example) could claim that Malick is comparing childhood in 1950s Texas with the birth of the universe. That’s where some could start to scoff and the word “pretentious” might show up. It’s hard to argue with anyone who calls this film pretentious because…it really is. Since the childhood moments in Texas supposedly mirror Malick’s own childhood it’s easy to condemn the film as pompous when twenty minutes or so into an autobiographical childhood film we are shown the birth of our universe.
Of course, this is just my interpretation and everyone is free to take from this film what they will. I found the film pretentious. I find most of Malick’s films pretentious, but I love them anyway, mainly because Malick makes absolutely beautiful films and this may be his most beautiful yet. The scenes detailing the origin of the universe and planet Earth are obviously the standout scenes especially since Malick, much like Darren Aronofsky did with The Fountain, used practical effects for most of these scenes. The violence of nature and creation has never looked better. But the scenes that take place in modern world are just as beautiful. The modern scenes have that Malick style, as the camera meanders around and with the characters, but what makes this film stand out is Malick’s ability to find beauty in nature and civilization. The present day scenes with Sean Penn are just as, if not more, impressive than the more natural shots during Brad Pitt’s segments.
The Tree of Life is beautiful not just visually, but atmospherically. At times, you may feel like you’re in the middle of a strange dream. After watching the film it can feel like you’ve just woken up and can’t quite put your finger on what the dream was about, you just know you want to go back to it. The disjointed nature of the film adds to the dream-like quality and yes, there are also elements and images that make no sense in almost any interpretation (much like how dreams contain random elements). That could be seen as problematic but it is very likely that it is all intentional. Who doesn’t look back on their childhood as if it was some distant dream? In that regard, Malick really captured the emotions of a childhood. Everyone cannot exactly identify with growing up in Texas in the 50s, of course, but most can identify with the feelings they had during their childhood.
As a dream, The Tree of Life works very well, but it is still a film and acting is a part of it. Thankfully, this film was cast perfectly. The child actors, mainly Hunter McCracken, are great. They are not professional actors and that is a good thing because they seemed very natural on screen. Jessica Chastain (who is currently attached to every single movie coming out in the next two years…) gives an equal parts happy and melancholic performance. Sean Penn (who has stated that he had no idea what he was supposed to be doing in the movie) is absolutely fantastic. Malick most likely didn’t tell Penn exactly what he was supposed to be doing because the character himself is lost. Whatever the circumstances were, they worked. Finally, Brad Pitt is very convincing as the complicated, overly stern father. Pitt has been on an absolute roll lately, opting for challenging roles. He continues to impress.
The Tree of Life can be enjoyed just by focusing on visuals and performance, but the narrative may disappoint and even infuriate some viewers. If you let yourself be taken in by the film, though, it can be an extremely rewarding experience. It’s all a matter of deciding if the film is worth thinking and reflecting about. If you decide it is worth your time, you won’t be disappointed. If there’s one thing you can say about Malick, it’s that he doesn’t disappoint his fans.