Great directors take risks and Terrence Malick is a great director. He’s also very smart—a Phi Beta Kappa Harvard graduate and a Rhodes Scholar who taught philosophy at M.I.T.—capable of pulling off the impossible. His The Tree of Life, debuted in 2011 and won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes film festival. Critics went crazy, praising the film’s unique approach for tackling the universal questions about life—how we began, how we exist, and what happens after we die.
What’s to be made of a film that includes segments that look like biology slides, colorful explosions signaling the beginning of the universe, and scenes of dinosaurs that echo Animal Planet? Oh, we also get to see Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain raising their three sons in Waco, Texas, in the 1950s, and the grown up son, played by Sean Penn, working as an architect in 2000, trying to make sense of his childhood and current life. Even though the film runs more than two hours, all of this subject matter is a lot to take in. The film, however, is never boring, owing to the fact that there’s so much happening on the screen, we are determined to figure out what it all means.
Cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki is simply breathtaking. At various intervals we see a bright light or a flame. God? Creation—from the beginnings of life, cells rapidly dividing, to the coming together of the planets, land crashing together, water splashing—is a visual feast.
The story of the 1950 O’Brien family is a film within a film. Brad Pitt is Mr. O’Brien, a frustrated musician and inventor who works as an engineer at the local plant, raising his three sons with Mrs. O’Brien, Jessica Chastain. The couple has divergent views about life and about parenting. Mr. O’Brien sees the world as tough and believes he needs to toughen up his sons to survive. Mrs. O’Brien is the soft touch, allowing the boys to run free when her husband is traveling. The three young actors who play this sibling trio—Hunter McCracken (Jack), Laramie Eppler (RL) and Tye Sheridan (Steve)—mesh together as brothers united against an abusive father. McCracken, the eldest, suffers the worst abuse, but he can give as good as he gets, taking out his anger on property, animals, and his brother.
Penn plays the grown up Jack who sees a tree being planted and flashes back to his life, including the death of his brother RL and two of his friends. Scenes of Jack rising in an elevator convey the illusion of rising up into heaven. Will he find the answers he seeks? The end provides some resolution.
The entire film has a dreamlike quality, even when we are watching the actors. Simple actions—running through a sprinkler, opening a drawer, washing a dish, hanging clothes—seem to happen in slow motion and imply meaning beyond what we’re seeing on the screen.
The Tree of Life did not win any Academy Awards, and certainly did not cash in at the box office. With a $32 million budget, the film took in less than $55 million both domestically and in the foreign market. It’s a film that needs to be taken on its own terms. Watch it with a group of friends. Trust me. The discussion will flow.