Brad Pitt as Mr. O'Brien
Sean Penn as Jack
Jessica Chastain as Mrs. O'Brien
Hunter McCracken as Young Jack
Laramie Eppler as R.L.
Tye Sheridan as Steve
Fiona Shaw as Grandmother
Joanna Going as Jack's Wife
Directed by Terrence Malick
Easily one of the most anticipated films of the year among cinephiles and fans of eccentric auteurs, Terrence Malick's "The Tree of Life" is likely to be just as polarizing as his other films as the filmmaker explores the origins of life and the afterlife in equally existential ways. The results should create a fairly well-defined line between those who absolutely must understand every aspect of what Malick is trying to do and say, and those who will allow themselves to be guided through the experience to develop their own interpretations. It's also a film that's nearly impossible to define in comparison to other films, because it's so uniquely unconventional.
Most of the story takes place in a Southern suburb in the '60s where Mr. and Mrs. O'Brien (Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain) are raising their three sons. We're introduced to them through a series of disjointed images as they deal with the death of one of their boys, the only voice in this section being the near-whispered narrative voiceover by Chastain, her character being a woman who puts all her faith in God and prays that will be enough.
The first 40 minutes are easily the hardest to get through, especially as we're brought back to the very origins of the universe and we watch the evolution of animal life as the film turns into a cross between a Disneynature film and something you quite literally might see at the Hayden Planetarium. It's absolutely gorgeous visuals whether it's images from the Hubble telescope or watching photo-realistic dinosaurs in their natural habitat.
Moving on from there, we're brought back to the early days of the O'Briens' marriage as she gives birth first to Jack then to his two younger brothers. Over the next hour, we watch Jack grow up through a series of moments in his life, some more significant than others. The opening half hour starts to make a lot more sense as you watch Jack's relationship with his domineering father, once a promising classical musician who gave up his dream to work a factory job to support his family, and taking his frustrations out on all of them any chance he gets. While Jack's mother's spirituality and faith will be put to the test later, as Jack reaches his teen years, he starts questioning his mother's God and getting himself into trouble with his overly-trusting younger brother. Watching these scenes are quite tranquil and relaxing but also quite haunting as you begin to realize how all the pieces fit together. Certainly one's enjoyment mileage may vary depending on how much one can relate to these family dynamics from their own childhood.
Brad Pitt is well suited for the role of Jack's father, but the real breakthroughs are Jessica Chastain and Hunter McCraken as the teen Jack, both whom have to develop their characters mainly through their expressions. Young McCracken has to carry the largest portion of the movie and make it work, compared to Sean Penn who really only has a couple of scenes as the older Jack in the framing sequences and barely utters a word.
This is not a movie about dialogue though, and other than the narration, little of it feels scripted, feeling more fly on the wall - if that fly were able to capture some of the most perfect images you've ever seen. As much as it may seem at times like Malick is just stringing together theses beautiful images and random sequences, you quickly realize that every scene is shot very deliberately, every piece giving us that much more insight into what is going on in this young man's head as he grows up.
Malick also seemingly has a sense of humor. In a rather innocuous moment that seems to have little significance, Pitt's character is telling his sons the definition of the word "subjective," almost a winking inside joke to those who catch it saying, "Yeah, I know that opinions of this film will vary depending on who is watching it, and I don't really care."
Regardless of whether you buy the minimal narrative, "The Tree of Life" is undeniably the best looking film in recent memory, and it would be a crime if DP Emmanuel Lubezki didn't receive another Oscar nomination for his efforts. Malick and his team have found absolutely stunning locations to capture nature in such a uniquely way you may ponder how much of it can possibly be real and how much is enhanced by computer. The results are a slow-moving film that never gets tedious since it forces you to attune yourself into every minute detail.
Unlike "The New World," Malick has created a cinematic experience that defies genre, one that's on par with Gaspar Noe's "Enter the Void" even if it's not nearly as edgy. As much as we admired the genius of that film, Malick's command of cinema allows him to tell an even simpler story in a grand and epic way that has a huge impact on the senses as it pulls you further into its worldview. Often, you forget you're watching a movie, especially as Alexandre Desplat's terrific score settles down from the bombastic chorale arrangements during the creation sequence. The matching final act bookend is far shorter, returning to Penn as the grown-up Jack and delivering an existential finale that could be seen as a companion piece to Clint Eastwood's "Hereafter."
The Bottom Line:
While Terrence Malick's existential musings may not entirely alter yours, "The Tree of Life" certainly gives you a lot to absorb and think about as the master filmmaker takes one step further into another plane of creative cinematic storytelling.