Terence Malick’s The Tree of Life revolves around a family in Waco Texas in 1956. Brad Pitt plays the father of the household, Mr. O’Brien (or Sir to his children), and through his eldest son, Jack (Hunter McCracken), we are shown the conflicting teachings of Mr. O’Brien and his wife (Jessica Chastain). Mr. O’Brien prefers a particularly strict code of discipline with little room for affection, while Mrs. O’Brien prefers to enjoy and partake in her children’s yearning for freedom, fun and adventure – even if it is mostly restricted to the edges of the front lawn.
As well as a family drama, The Tree of Life is also an exploration of the origins and meaning of life – not only through the whispered memories of a now middle-aged Jack (Sean Penn) looking back at his childhood – but also against the narrative backdrop of the origins of the universe and the inception of life on Earth.
With incredible volcanic eruptions, DNA floating to its destiny, and many other wonderfully striking and emotive visuals full of colour and bursting with life – the epic and evocative cinematography of these sequences is every bit as awe-inspiring as you’ll see in The Fountain, 2001: A Space Odyssey, or any other film which successfully attempts to portray the glorious immensity and unfathomable power of existence.
With The Tree of Life, these images are often of an experimental nature, almost to an avant-garde degree. And it is through this experimentally artistic inclination that the imagery delivers such raw power. From terrifying and explosive to melancholic and peaceful, they each demand and conquer various emotions of wonder, intrigue, awe and even when you least expect it – sadness.
2001 is an obvious inspiration, and The Tree of Life draws similarities not just for the evocative images of the most miraculous evolutions of our universe, but also from the juxtaposition of these colossal happenings with the dramas of the life of man. In this case, rather than astronauts and devious technology, it’s a 1950s nuclear family.
As with Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece, the ambitious nature and scope of The Tree of Life not only comes from the daring shots, but from their pairing with the smaller elements of the picture. Leaves floating in the wind, a child’s hand swaying through the fresh summer grass – each shot is just as stunning and sincere, regardless of its natural grandeur.
In order to enjoy The Tree of Life, rather than straining to deconstruct its complexities, it’s best to relax yourself and enjoy the complete experience by letting the visuals, story and whispered narration flow over you.
Brad Pitt delivers an as accomplished performance as ever, and Chastain is equally engaging. Laramie Eppler and Tye Sheridan who play the younger boys R.L. and Steve, are every bit as convincing as their on-screen parents, and McCracken as their older brother puts in a memorable debut performance which should ensure he’s never far from the minds of casting directors for quite some time.
Although quite a convoluted film – albeit to its credit – the ending of The Tree of Life is somewhat contrived. Compared to the pleasing spontaneity of the rest of the film’s heavenly sequences, it almost feels tacked on to deliver some sort of forced conclusion to a film which doesn’t need a definitive one. It even brings back sore memories of the lazy conclusion of Lost (not that the two complete works should be compared to one-another). As Penn’s Jack is walking around a divine landscape mingling silently with his friends and family on the backdrop of calm desert terrain and a picturesque beach, it feels a bit of a lacklustre conclusion to a film which portrays the evolution of life and the magic of all its successors – from single cells and towering dinosaurs to confused children of the 1950’s – so grandly.
This ending is especially bewildering as it challenges the film’s prior inclination regarding creation, where a natural beginning of life over a God-given one seemed to be favoured.
Yes by the time you reach this ending a slight feeling of disappointment may arise, but as is often the case with such visionary works, it’s not the destination that matters most; it’s the journey you take in reaching it. And anyway, if Kubrick can get away with a giant baby floating through space, I think we can let Malick off this once with his rather ‘happily ever after’ ending.
The Tree of Life is a thoughtful, emotional journey through time. And for the few moments of uncertainty you may have about the films meaning and merit, there will be many where you can do nothing but watch in amazement and appreciate Malick’s splendid vision and incredible talent for tapping into our deepest emotions through breath-taking imagery and compelling storytelling.