Malick has only made five films in nearly 40 years. Each of them has had a meditative quality, a haunting voiceover, exquisite images, and themes centering on the loss of Eden. “The Tree of Life” begins with a quote from the Book of Job, but even though very sad events befall the O’Brien family this is not the story of good people whose faith is tested by a series of unbearable losses. It is an exploration of how we fit into the grandest possible scheme of things, how the patterns repeat in the division of cells to make complex systems, the development of mechanical formulas so singular that they merit a patent, the awakening of the first adult thoughts in a child, innocence and loss, harsh reality and ethereal imagination.
Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien are so archetypal they do not even have first names. They are just Father (never Dad) (Pitt) and Mother (pre-Raphaelite beauty Jessica Chastain). Pitt sheds his movie-star charisma for his Missouri roots, showing us a mid-century man from Middle America, every line of him as straight as the slide rule that like O’Brien himself is about to be out of date. He loves his three boys fiercely and fights down his own tenderness to teach them the lessons he thinks they must have to survive. He is all that is hard and logical and precise and mechanical. Mrs. O’Brien is gentle, almost silent, so in tune with nature she seems to float through it.
The movie’s near-miracle is the way it evokes the muddy, let’s-break-something boy world. Sending a frog up in a rocket, racing behind a truck spewing clouds of DDT, shoving against each other like puppies, holding in wonder a neighbor’s neglige, the heartless, heedless, long, long thoughts of a boy’s life are beautifully portrayed.
It is easy to understand why this film was both booed at Cannes and given its highest honor. I admired the film’s audacity but winced at its pretentiousness. There are some moments of stunning beauty and power. But other parts seemed overdone and empty.
(If you want to know what I think the ending means, send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org — and tell me what you think it means!)
Parents should know that this film includes an offscreen death of a child with devastating parental grief, children’s play results in death of an animal, a father is strict with children and his wife to the point of brutality, some dinosaur violence, some disturbing existential themes.
Family discussion: What is this movie about? How do the creation scenes relate to the story of the family? Why is there so little dialog? What is happening in the end on the beach?
If you like this, try: the short film “Powers of Ten” and the other films by Terrence Malick including “Days of Heaven” and “Badlands”