When this film was screened at the Cannes festival it drew mixed reactions. There were boos as well as applause, but it seems like those who favor it are in the majority. Most reviews have been positive and the movie ended up snaring the top prize at the festival. That’s the thing about Terrence Malick. Due to their slow pace, philosophical content and poetic tone, his films are sometimes tough to penetrate, but if you’re willing to make an effort you will be rewarded. Still, the reason why people booed is likely a reaction against preachifying.
The film opens with a quote from the Good Book: “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the Earth? When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” (Job 38:4, 7). It is a reminder from God to Job of how the Earth was created long before mankind took its first step. What follows is an initially confusing, swiftly edited collection of images that may seem even random at times, but their purpose is to establish three aspects. We’re introduced to an American family sometime in the 1950s where Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien (Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain) try to raise their three sons to the best of their abilities.
We’re also introduced to Jack (Sean Penn), the oldest of the sons, as an adult four decades later who’s still trying to understand his place in the world, still trying to reconcile the views of his mother and father. And finally, there’s a vision of how our planet was created and the origins of life.
Acknowledging God as a guiding light
Ambitious? Oh, yeah. Pretentious? Perhaps a tad. It’s not often you get to see a Terrence Malick movie that features CGI dinosaurs. Set to well-chosen musical pieces, Malick’s visual effects team delivers stunning images of outer space, star constellations, the inhospitable climate of our planet’s earliest days, cells forming, creatures swimming in prehistoric oceans and giant lizards making their mark on the world millions of years ago. Trying to pair this with a down-to-earth story about parenting skills is a bold achievement, but Malick makes his themes clear. It’s all about evolution and learning the lessons of life. No matter if you’re an Apatosaurus or an 11-year-old boy, you need to see that you will get nowhere in life without the skills to love others but also put yourself first.
Those two lessons are often at odds with each other, as symbolized by Pitt and Chastain’s characters, but the lifelong challenge is to understand them both. Death is a complicating factor and that’s where some in the audience might feel that Malick turns to preaching. It may not be a strictly Christian film, but the Job quotes and that moving final sequence certainly suggest that we cannot expect to live without acknowledging God as our guiding light. It would be possible to make this film without those obvious references… but it’s Malick’s prerogative to include them.
Perhaps needlessly convoluted, the film still has something to offer most viewers. Some will cherish the beauty of the effects, others will love the spiritual portrayal of growing up in the countryside. And others will take to the adult Jack’s sense of being lost in the modern world. There is no tree without roots.
The Tree of Life 2011-U.S. 138 min. Color. Produced by Sarah Green, Grant Hill, Brad Pitt, William Pohlad, Dede Gardner. Written and directed by Terrence Malick. Cinematography: Emmanuel Lubezki. Cast: Brad Pitt (Mr. O’Brien), Sean Penn (Jack O’Brien), Jessica Chastain (Mrs. O’Brien), Hunter McCracken, Fiona Shaw, Laramie Eppler.
Trivia: Heath Ledger, Mel Gibson and Colin Farrell were allegedly considered for parts in the film.
Cannes: Palme d’Or.
Last word: “Watching the film, and I’ve seen many cuts, I’m a guy who fights the idea of heaven but what I do respect is that there is a greater power than anything we understand, and for me the film is about that. Perhaps we don’t need these religious concoctions to pillow the fear of death. Just the fact that there is an unknown, and something greater, can bring a feeling of peace. That’s enough for me.” (Pitt, The Guardian)