As a relative newcomer to ‘art cinema’, I must admit that my understanding/knowledge of the medium is vastly limited. Hence, in an attempt to expand my viewing horizons beyond the mainstream, I decided to watch Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, which has to be one of the first arty films I have seen in theaters. Normally, watching such films with a mass audience can be a counter-productive experience because the ambience isn’t exactly conducive to thought-provoking cinema, but, from reading the reviews, I understood that the quality of visuals in this film meant that a big-screen experience was a must. Having seen it, I am glad I made that choice. The Tree of Life is far from being a modern classic, but the effort that has gone into making it as close to one as possible is worth the price of admission; it is also enough to make the viewer overlook any flaws that might otherwise have presented themselves.
In The Tree of Life, director Terrence Malick essentially tries to bring together a number of disparate elements and make a statement on humanity’s existence in this time. The first of these, which forms the film’s fringe, is directly influenced by Stanley Kubrick’s seminal masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey. In this segment, the director assaults the viewer with a variety of images from the Big Bang to the time when dinosaurs roamed Earth to the asteroid collision which led to their extinction to the destruction of our planet far into the future. This takes up much of the film’s running time in the first 45 minutes and also rears its head a few times later on.
Besides that, a majority of the film is devoted to observing the seemingly everyday lives of The O’Brien family in Texas. Father Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt) is the typical head of the family from the 1950s: A strict disciplinarian who is constantly imposing his view of what he sees as the ‘evil world’ on his children. The mother Mrs. O’Brien (Jessica Chastain) cuts a familiar figure caught between dividing her love equally amongst her three sons and protecting them from the harsh punishments of their father. Jack (Hunter McCracken) is the first of the three children and the film is primarily his coming-of-age tale. His two siblings are R.L (Laramie Eppler) and Steve (Tye Sheridan).
Finally, the rest of the film is taken up by a grown-up Jack (Sean Penn), now an architect, who has difficulty forgetting the loss of his first brother (the film opens with this news) and is constantly seeing visions of deserts, rocky terrains, and the afterlife.
The primary, and only, issue with the film is that, when taken on its own, each of the aforementioned elements has been intricately realized, but, as a whole, they don’t mesh together as well as the director intended them to. While the presence of the existential imagery is understandable when taken in the context of the family drama that forms the film’s backbone, we don’t get the feeling that it is essential in the same way it was to 2001. In the latter, the entire structure of the film felt like the director was trying to achieve a higher meaning regarding mankind’s evolution, and therefore, the existential concepts served their purpose. In The Tree of Life, on the other hand, they seem like a gimmick added in order to stuff the film’s running time. Once the film moves into the core drama territory beyond the first 45 minutes, each time we see Sean Penn or the special effects laden imagery, the film slows to a crawl. While I still found myself admiring the director’s vision and presentation, I couldn’t wait for them to get over and get back to observing the O’Briens.
This is largely due to the brilliance of the dramatic segments and the fully developed characters in the O’Brien family. Mr. O’Brien is presented as an authoritative figure who disciplines his sons to prepare them for the harsh realities of the outside world. However, partly due to Pitt’s powerhouse performance and partly due to the writing, he doesn’t come across as a caricature of authority and discipline, which can sometimes happen to such characters. The film finds Brad Pitt at his dramatic best in scenes when Mr. O’Brien’s rough exterior is broken to reveal glimpses of his softer side and the love he hides for his sons, especially Jack. One such scene is also arguably the film’s most heartfelt: Mr. O’Brien and Jack share a private conversation in which the former apologizes for the way he has sometimes treated the latter, while Jack realizes he is more like his father than either of his siblings.
Mrs. O’Brien is another great character and it offered me the chance to get a close look at Jessica Chastain’s immense talent as an actress. 2011 is Jessica’s breakthrough year with her being associated with some of the year’s biggest films in The Tree of Life, The Help, The Debt, Take Shelter, and Coriolanus, not to mention already taking home a few awards as well. I’ve not seen those other films, but, after watching her in this one, I can definitively state that this is one actress I am really looking forward to in the future. She has an elegant, beautiful face, much like Amanda Seyfried. And, much like the latter, she puts her expressive face to work to demonstrate the depth of her character. Whether it was playing around with her sons or having a troubled look on her face due to Jack’s goofing around or standing up to her husband’s authority, she was simply exceptional. As a sampling of her work, observe her in one scene in the dining room where Mr. O’Brien goes into a fit of rage at being spoken back to; she doesn’t say anything in this scene but is able to capture a number of emotions with her expressions alone.
Last but certainly not the least, the lynchpin of the film is the character of Jack and the gifted talents of Hunter McCracken. Jack’s story begins by observing the jealousy that develops in him as soon as the second O’Brien son, R.L., is born. But the bulk of the film’s focus is on his adolescent years where the jealousy manifests itself completely. In typical fashion, he stands up to his father and doesn’t look at his strictness too kindly, as we all don’t at one point or the other in our lives. And during those times when his father is not around, his rebellious nature comes to the fore as he commits some seemingly worse, but still largely minor, offenses. All the while, he is just trying to find an identity for himself, and this is where the presence of the other aspects of Malick’s picture is fully understood. Hunter McCracken joins Joel Courtney of Super 8 fame as one of the young finds of the year. While the latter’s performance in the sci-fi blockbuster was good, the former’s in this art film is much better. He is able to portray every aspect of Jack, be it the confusion of adolescence, the silent anger at his father’s actions, or the jealousy over R.L, with the relative ease that one might not have expected at his young age. Sean Penn’s turn as the adult Jack is largely unnecessary and forgettable, but this is mainly because the entire segment is like that.
Since dialogue is sparse – again a minor ode to 2001 – the film relies on the strength of the cinematography and music. Emmanuel Lubezki is responsible for the former and is sure to find his name on the nominees list come the time when awards are being handed out. While the vivid images during the conceptual sequences are noteworthy for obvious reasons, it is in the way he captures the day-to-day life of the O’Brien family that warrants special attention. As for the latter, this is the third time this year I have been awestruck by Alexandre Desplat’s brilliance following The Deathly Hallows: Part 2 and The Ides of March. Music directors sometimes think they need to be loud and make the audience feel exactly what should be felt. Desplat’s superiority lies in his ability to never overstress anything; he knows that, at times, silence is equally effective, if not more. Needless to say, he is sure to be recognized for his work in either of these films.
The Tree of Life is easily one of the best films of this year. Though it isn’t as perfect as the director envisioned it to be, the fact that it aims to be something more than the sum of its distinct parts deserves appreciation; very few directors these days have such lofty goals for themselves. It may not be a masterpiece, it may not even be close to being one, but The Tree of Life is a film that must be seen for the beauty of its imagery, the emotional resonance of its drama, and the brilliance of the three centerpiece performances from McCracken, Chastain, and Pitt.