Roughly two weeks ago my husband and I went and watched the film “The Tree of Life”, written & directed by Terrence Malick. It won the Palm d’Or at Cannes this year and stars Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain and Sean Penn. I would like to start off by saying I enjoyed the movie, I really did. Did I LOVE the movie? Well, no, not to the extent that I adore other films. Is it worth watching? I would say yes. I will be completely honest though, there were times where I felt extremely bored and fidgety. “Where is this going?!”, was the biggest concern I had, especially when there was the very lengthy segment about 1/4 of the way into the film detailing the creation of the Earth and the life on it – pretty, but frustrating. If that sounds random, it is and it isn’t. I’ve found this film to be rather complicated to explain to people when they ask what it’s about. I will do my best to do so here, perhaps in a more verbose fashion than I did when casually speaking to my co-workers.
What I got from the film was that it is first about life, death, and spirituality – more like a meditation rather than a straight narrative. This is not a conventional movie where we have clear, distinct, and succint actions, explanations and narratives. There isn’t one particular plot that is explained over one and a half hours like most films. Like I said earlier, a meditation describes the mood of the film far better. We see a family of a husband and wife with three boys growing up somewhere in the south during the 1950s. They are typical, normal, average in every way. We see blips of Chastain’s & Pitt’s characters meeting, being in love, and after their marriage, then the births of the children and more little blips of their early childhoods. The main focus of the film is during the childhood of the eldest boy (Jack), and that’s where the majority of the film takes place, at this time in his life. We do see segments of this boy as a man (played by Sean Penn) being extremely contemplative and thinking back to that time in his life that we watch, and how it affects him in the present, but this seems to exist as framework to support the rest of the film. I believe the bigger part of this man’s story is this specific time in his childhood because to him those were some of his most formative years, the ones which would later have the biggest impact in his adult life, the years that still remain so vividly etched in his memory. They appear to be those years which would continue to haunt him as a man and the ones which would cultivate the complex and troubled relationship with his father (Brad Pitt).
The casting in this film was amazing. Brad Pitt played this role exceptionally well. He was a human and all those terribly complex things that come along with being human: emotional, fearful, ambitious, spiritual, domineering, loving, envious, violent, etc. and you could see it. He was capable of expressing much more through his eyes, his body language and his presence than through mere lines. It was a subtle and yet powerful performance. The same can be said of Chastain and the child actor who portrayed the eldest boy. There is not a lot of straight dialogue but brief exchanges between the characters through normal speech. Far more is expressed through looks, glances, and body language than verbally. There are the occasional narrations from the main characters, mostly Jack(?), but they are not there to aid the viewer in better understanding what’s going on or to explain the story. These narrations are more like thoughts these individuals have about their situation, about God, about life. I remember a particular segment in the film more vividly where (potential spoiler) after another boy drowns at a public swimming area very suddenly, you can hear Jack in a whispering voiceover telling God that, “you let a boy die today”, and goes on to further ruminate that, “if you don’t have to be good, why should I?” I was really struck by that in a way that is hard to explain and it really stayed with me. Those are the sorts of observations and questions I feel that everyone asks at some point in their lives about God/the Divine. Why were some things “allowed” to happen? Why did this person die, get sick, get hurt? It’s a question that seems both child-like in its simplicity and extremely adult all at the same time. They’re certainly thoughts that I’ve had from time to time, and maybe that’s why that little part of the film stuck with me so.
Overall, the film come across as a very large-scale vignette on life-in-general with several smaller vignettes about certain aspects of life – short stories in a much larger and never-ending book if you will. We see powerful and overwhelming images of the cosmos and universe that make one feel so terribly insignificant that are still so breathtakingly beautiful (aided by a gorgeous score). You don’t know whether you want to cry from the sheer wonder of it all or due to your own feelings of meaninglessness in the grand scheme of a seemingly unending existence. Maybe both (for me at least). Which leads me to the following: I have read criticism that the family of characters is boringly average and that there seems to be no reason to be interested in watching them – why should we care? To me, that’s sort of the point. The family we see IS normal. They live and die and experience moments of joy and pain in between. That is exactly why Malick shows them. They are all of us in all of our trivial moments that mean so much, yet so little in the grand scheme. This is a story about these characters that also tells the story about you and I. The movie could be your life or the life of someone you know. That’s the whole point! This isn’t a thriller, horror flick, or romantic comedy where the characters are meant to be relatable yet are put in situations that are virtually impossible if not fun to imagine. This film isn’t about taking you out of reality but pushing you further into it. This film wants you to look at your reality and I mean really look at it. What is it that makes us who we are? What is it that continues to shape and touch us throughout our lives, no matter where we go or how old we get? What should we leave behind and what should we embrace? Who or what is God? Is there a God? There are just so many questions that this film asks and that wants you to in turn ask of yourself. Being a human in extraordinary circumstances isn’t the point, it’s taking a look at what’s normal and how THAT can be incredibly extraordinary in the most humble & mundane of ways.
I will admit that there were times where I got frustrated about the pacing and felt at times bored, I won’t lie. There did come a time though where the film picked up and started to realize its own point and became much more engaging. And I must add that the cinematography is simply stunning. There is absolutely no debating just how beautiful this film is to watch. You may be one who becomes bored with the storyline, but you can’t deny enjoying what you’re seeing at least. And while I feel that the overarching theme is not something new (what is anymore really?), I did find that the method and delivery of it was still captivating and thought-provoking. It was a movie that I left in quiet thought going over everything I had just seen and trying to figure out the deeper meaning behind it all. It left an impression on me, which is what a truly good piece of film-work should do. Obviously tastes may vary, but I feel that at its core, this film has much to reveal to the more-than-casual viewer.
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