Dazzling, Perplexing, Idiosyncratic, Meditative Cinepoem
Winner of the Palme d'Or at Cannes, The Tree of Life (2011) was written and directed by Terrence Malick (The New World). Brad Pitt gives an outstanding performance as one of the film's main characters, and Sean Penn plays a key supporting role.
The Tree of Life centers on a Waco, Texas, family of five: Mr. O'Brien (Pitt), his wife (Jessica Chastain) and their three sons. Most scenes take place in the 1950s when the eldest son, Jack (newcomer Hunter McCracken), is about 12. The incidents in the life of the family are banal, but Malick infuses a number of them with powerful emotion.
The movie also has several scenes of Jack as a melancholy middle-aged man (Penn).
Sometimes intercut with the sequences depicting people are scenes dramatizing natural phenomena, including the beginning of the universe and the development of life on Earth. Also, the film occasionally shows slowly morphing abstract light patterns from Opus 161, a 1960s artwork by Thomas Wilfred.
The Tree of Life's music sets the film's contemplative mood and tone. There's an evocative score by Alexandre Desplat (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button), as well as excerpts from pieces by Bach, Berlioz, Mahler, Couperin, Holst, Smetana and Respighi.
The Tree of Life is an enigmatic movie that is not for everyone. It has almost no narrative drive, and there isn't much dramatic tension. The unreceptive are likely to find it to be a pretentious bore. But for receptive viewers, Malick manages to suffuse his film with an air of spirituality.
A Challenging, One-of-a-Kind, Personal Film
The movie opens with a text card displaying a quotation from the Book of Job, while lapping waves are heard. Cut to mysterious, slowly changing abstract patterns of light (from Wilfred's Opus 161), and a man whispers in voice-over, "Brother. Mother. It was they who led me to your door."
Fade to black, and a choir is heard singing a dirge. Cut to a happy-looking young girl in a rural setting. A woman speaks in voice-over: "The nuns taught us there are two ways through life—" Cut to the girl cradling a goat kid in her arms. The voice-over: "the way of nature …" Cut to a shot of a blazing sun in a blue sky with billowy clouds. The voice-over: "and the way of grace." Cut to a shot of a field of sunflowers.
Gradually, impressionistically, a fragmented story emerges nonlinearly about Jack O'Brien, who grows up in a modest, but pleasant neighborhood in Waco. Jack's father (Pitt) loves him, but is a stern disciplinarian. The boy's mother (Chastain) is angelic and playful. Jack is the eldest of three brothers, and he has a special bond with the middle brother, who paints and plays guitar.
There are also scenes of Jack as a middle-aged, Armani-wearing architect who lives in a striking, but starkly modern house. He's in a contemplative mood, pondering the mysteries of life. A child actor plays young Jack, and Penn plays middle-aged Jack.
In real life, Malick moved to Waco in 1954 when he was 11, and he went on to study philosophy at Harvard and Oxford. Malick's life experiences are likely what make this film feel intensely personal.
Beginnings of the Universe, Dinosaurs and an Otherworldly Vision
The Tree of Life contains sequences that many viewers find puzzling.
Among these are representations of the Big Bang and the beginning of precellular life. There are also shots of nature: various forms of marine life, including jellyfish; volcanoes; massive waterfalls. According to Malick's depiction of nature, it is awe-inspiring, often beautiful, and sometimes violent.
One of the film's most memorable sequences shows dinosaurs in a whimsical vignette. A birdlike dinosaur happens upon a lizardlike dinosaur lying down, unable to get up due to illness or injury. The birdlike dinosaur places its foot on the lizardlike dinosaur's head and is about to crush it. But then the birdlike dinosaur appears to change its mind, lifts its foot and wanders away.
There's also the climactic sequence near movie's end that takes place while middle-aged Jack is riding in an elevator in a Houston skyscraper. In his mind's eye, he sees himself in a desolate place with odd rock formations (shot at least partly in Utah's Goblin Valley State Park). He imagines he hears his adolescent self say, "Follow me," and soon middle-aged Jack pictures himself coming upon a crowd of people milling around on a beach (shot at Matagorda, Texas). It turns out that in the crowd are his mother, father and two brothers, all as they were back in 1950s Waco, and the family members reunite and exchange embraces. The sequence is accompanied by the "Agnus Dei" of Berlioz' Requiem and perhaps represents Jack coming to terms with the existence of suffering and death.
Three Discs and a Making-Of Documentary
The home-viewing package containing The Tree of Life consists of three discs, each providing the feature film in a different format: Blu-ray, DVD and Digital Copy. There are no supplementary materials on either the DVD or Digital Copy discs, but the Blu-ray disc contains a fairly interesting 30-minute making-of documentary titled "Exploring The Tree of Life."
Writer-director Terrence Malick, who is notoriously reclusive, does not appear in "Exploring The Tree of Life" and presumably had nothing to do with making it. However, there are interviews with Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain, and the three child actors who played the O'Brien brothers are heard from. Also, there are contributions from key crew members, including the production designer, who reveals that Smithville, Texas, which is about 40 miles out of Austin, stood in for 1950s Waco. In addition, there are observations by a pair of filmmakers: Christopher Nolan (Inception, The Dark Knight) and David Fincher (Zodiac, The Social Network).
Blu-ray/DVD Release Date: October 11, 2011
Number of Discs: 3 (Blu-ray + DVD + Digital Copy)
Feature Film Runtime = 2 hr. 19 min.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some thematic material