Title: The Tree of Life
Director: Terence Malick
Starring: Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain, Hunter McCracken, Sean Penn
Just as religion isn’t for everyone these days, same can be said for ‘The Tree of Life.’ The 138 minute unstructured displays is the calling card of Terrence Malick. For those needing more elaboration on that last statement, this is an art house flick that presents scenarios with images and a narrative dialogue. There is a working script with characters, and if one is patient, they will understand the plot. What they may not comprehend is why this storytelling approach is considered entertaining? Or for that matter, genius?
And I’m not saying the film is or isn’t at this point. But I get it. Kind of like how yours truly can appreciate the musical talents of Dave Matthews; but you’ll never see me rockin’ out to any of his tunes in my car or household. Hell, I’ll even leave a bar if they start playing his songs. But…I get it.
To put a star-rating/grade on a movie such as this can be misleading. When the majority of the feature is encrypted with messages, audiences will have their own unique reaction to the material. It’s not like rating a horror movie where there is a broad criterion most people adhere to. So the star-rating that is attached to this is based on the forthcoming synopsis that resembles something close to a “normal” film. The other aspects are similar to an Epcot ride or a planetarium visit (complete with CGI dinosaurs & vast images of Mother Nature), where Malick gives ample time for the viewer to ride the cosmos and explore Earth‘s vast landscapes, in a welcomed peaceful manner (my favorite part of this). And then there’s Sean Penn, purposely looking zoned out as he walks through modern times as if he is doing a screen test for a luxury car commercial.
While being guided by a “birth of life” and/or “first time you get laid” symphony sound, along with whispers from the characters, the story revolves around a suburban family in the 1950s. Mr. & Mrs. O’Brien (Brad Pitt & Jessica Chastain) are the proud parents of three young boys. Mr. O’Brien is a stern father who can show great compassion to his sons and also reprimand them at any given time for trivial things. He and his oldest, Jack (Hunter McCracken), have more confrontations than the youngest boys. Mrs. O’Brien, who believes God will guide them to happiness, is the typical housewife from the baby boomer’s generation and tolerates her husband’s outbursts on life.
As a montage of moments flash on the screen, ranging from the three brothers participating in normal recreational activities, to being loved by their father one minute and scolded the next, whispers of what went on through the minds of Jack and his parents are all directed toward God as they try to make sense of the situations. And that’s your main dialogue folks.
The point of the story is projected clearly when considering the unorthodox delivery that Malick embraces here. However, this entire portion went on like a drunken priest giving a homily on Christmas. At this portion of the program, one will be yearning for the cinematic “slideshow” of the galaxy and single-celled organisms to jump back on the screen. Two-thirds of the way through, this drama turns mildly sadistic. The “Jack” character teases transforming into “Damien” from the Omen. He even channels Macaulay Culkin from The Good Son. So this spiritual theme goes all “evil kid” for a few moments right around the beginning of the third act. Meanwhile, Brad Pitt is a walking contradiction of what he preaches, and this is where the story begins to feel compelling when the script is analyzing the two above mentioned storylines.
Referenced above was the inclusion of Sean Penn. His depressed character represents the universal narrative, as the story is looking back on his memories from the present. Most of his time is spent walking through valleys or sitting in his luxurious home or office. And that’s it.
Where this all ties in – and once again questions the modus operandi of God in some respects – is at the end which will spark debate. Not a religious debate; more like an Inception-ending convo. Chances are though; the discussion will be not be as lively as last year’s most talked about product.
Overall, ‘The Tree of Life’ is something you have to be in the mood for. This piece deviates from the typical storytelling pattern found on the big screen. At times it can go overboard when trying to project its religious message via all the technical elements that are going into a scene. You may even start to snicker. Having said that, the atmosphere created isn’t funny, but someone is going to do a hilarious parody of this and it will be a riot. If you’re an individual that can methodically walk through an art museum for a couple hours, step right into this with no reservations. But as far as entertainment and being mentally stimulated goes, drink some Absinthe and spend time people watching at a theme park to fill that void.
Despite what all the critic deities are preaching, this flick isn’t as deep or intelligent as it thinks it is. Either that or I’m not as sharp as I think I am. But at least I’m fun and focused!
Review by Joe Belcastro