THE STORY – Young Jack (Hunter McCracken) is one of three brothers growing up as part of the O’Brien family in small-town Texas. Jack has a contentious relationship with his father, but gets along well with his beautiful mother. As an adult, Jack struggles with his past and tries to make sense of his childhood, while also grappling with bigger existential issues.
THE CAST – Brad Pitt, Sean Penn & Jessica Chastain
THE TEAM – Terrence Malick (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 139 Minutes
There have been dozens of great filmmakers over the past fifty years, but few have commanded the reverence of Terrence Malick. He works sparingly, improvisationally, and without much concern for traditional narrative form. He disappears for years, sometimes decades, and when he returns, the biggest stars in the world clamor to work with him (even if most of their scenes wind up on the cutting room floor). He’s a unicorn in a medium that’s increasingly becoming reliant on blockbusters and easily digestible “content.” Malick’s unknowability and Salinger-esque reputation are undoubtedly part of his appeal. Still, the thing that’s really allowed him to endure is his ability to deliver awe-inspiring masterpieces like “The Tree of Life” (2011).
The film is simple, at least in premise. It follows Jack O’Brien (Hunter McCracken) as he comes of age in Waco, Texas, during the 1950s. There are occasional flashes of an adult Jack (Sean Penn) as he reflects on his parents and his childhood in the modern day. However, things get complicated and significantly more ambitious because Jack’s experiences are intercut with the formation of Earth and the inception of life as we know it.
There’s perhaps no bolder cinematic example of macro and micro storytelling working in tandem. There is, however, a method to this madness. The film sets up the defining tragedy in the life of the O’Brien family, the death of Jack’s brother, R.L. (Laramie Eppler), then resets the clock and shows the viewer the moment the universe was born. Death, birth. One life, all of life. One is made intimate, the other elevated. “The Tree of Life” has had the “pretentious” label slapped on it by many, and understandably so given its lofty aspirations, but the film’s unwavering sincerity and beauty make it difficult to ignore. It’s as good as it sets out to be.
The sequence depicting the birth of the universe is the most beautiful short film ever tucked inside of a feature. Malick summons all of his Kubrickian mastery and manages to outdo the “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968) sequence that inspired it by once again highlighting life’s contradictions. A moment of grace, in which a dinosaur chooses not to kill another, is followed by a harrowing example of nature, in which an asteroid strikes Earth and kills them all. The striking visual effects may distract, but Malick effectively lays out his thesis in this moment: we do not choose to live, but we can choose how we live.
Each member of the O’Brien family grapples with the how. Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt) is a failed musician turned factory worker. He loves his family, but his desire to safeguard his kids against failure leads to strict parenting and violent outbursts. Mrs. O’Brien (Jessica Chastain) is seen more often than heard, and her attempts to balance the growing resentments between her husband and her kids leave very little room for her own desires. These characters are archetypal to the point of not having first names, and yet, the performances given by Pitt and Chastain imbue them with an overwhelming sense of depth and specificity.
Pitt is at his best when playing men, trying (and failing) to keep their insecurities in check. The lackadaisical charm that informs his best-known roles gives way to a bitterness that infects even the happier exchanges in the film. Something as innocuous as asking Jack for a goodnight kiss becomes a tense reminder of the power dynamic between father and son. This unrelenting bitterness makes the character’s flashes of vulnerability all the more tragic. Given her character’s lack of voice in the household, Chastain has significantly less dialogue, so most of her performance is communicated through pained expressions and knowing glances. She has one of the most expressive faces in Hollywood, and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki takes full advantage of this by placing it front and center. The moment when a bereaved Mrs. O’Brien is told that she still has two living sons is devastating precisely because of how much Chastain can get across in the span of five (silent) seconds.
Oh yeah: Emmanuel Lubezki shoots the film. He shoots the hell out of this film. Malick’s free-form approach to directing meant that Lubezki was untethered from the usual confines of boom mics and scene continuity, and the cinematographer responded with some of the best work of his or anybody else’s career. You’d be hard-pressed to go more than 90 seconds without finding a shot that scrambles your brain and forces you to recontextualize a setting or object you’ve seen millions of times. Children walking on a sidewalk become an inverted image of their shadows on the pavement. The courtship of Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien becomes a series of tableaus through the use of flickering lights. Then there’s the stuff that transcends creativity and is simply beautiful, like the shot of a butterfly landing on Mrs. O’Brien’s hand. “The Tree of Life” is a textbook example of finding profundity in the mundane. Try to imagine it working nearly as well without Lubezki’s eye. You cannot.
As perfect as things may seem, one element hinders “The Tree of Life” for me. The scenes focusing on adult Jack are few and far between, and Penn, despite his prodigious talents as an actor, is given little to do besides look disoriented. So much time is spent with the character as a child that when we get to the film’s climax, and adult Jack is reunited with his parents, the effect is underwhelming. It makes sense structurally, but given that the entire film hinges on the adult version of the character, I wish more time had been dedicated to fleshing him out. We know little of his relationship with his parents or his living brother when we get to know virtually everything about his younger self.
This is, admittedly, a flaw that others can overlook. Some point to the film’s runtime as the biggest flaw, or they revert to the dreaded “P” word (“pretentious”) when discussing the depiction of the end of the universe near the final act. “The Tree of Life,” like the rest of Malick’s work, is not for everyone. However, those who connect with it will be treated to a masterpiece in which spirituality, existence, and the search for higher meaning are baked into a story that feels intimate and familial. It is one of the most outstanding cinematic achievements of the 21st century and a tidy summation of everything that Malick does well. If this were the only film to his name, he would still be venerated as one of the most singular talents of his generation. It’s that good.