Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life is, in a word, ambitious. The film is a mixed bag of rich imagery, fragmented storytelling, and commentary on the circle of life and how we're all connected. Malick tackles themes that resonate with all of us: life, death, religion, and family, but what you take away from the abstract film is entirely up to you. I left the theater impressed by Malick's effort and execution, but wishing for a more emotional response. In a nutshell, The Tree of Life is like looking at a painting: to some it may be a masterpiece, others will just see another piece of art they don't get.
In the midst of enough gorgeous footage to fill a National Geographic documentary (Malick certainly puts the "tree" in The Tree of Life), is the story of the O'Brien family in the 1950s. More specifically, the film follows Jack, the eldest of three brothers who reflects on his childhood and the milestones that shaped him as he came of age. Sean Penn plays present-day Jack, who struggles with the meaning of his younger brother's death in battle and his relationship with his family and God. As a child, Jack is adored by his doting mother (Jessica Chastain) and berated by his father (Brad Pitt). The struggle between his innate desire to be just like his father and his will to defy him present one of the bigger conflicts of the film. As his voice-over whispers in prayer: "Why should I be good if you aren't?" To find out what else I thought of the film, just read more.
The movie explores that question by pitting nature against. grace; the same beauty that comes from the earth also brings senseless disaster, while God seems to punish us even if we're good. Likewise, Jack's parents represent that duality: Mr. O'Brien represents the harsh truths of the world: he raises his boys to fear him and grow into strong, self-serving men. Mrs. O'Brien is his perfect foil: girlish and loving, she's practically angelic frolicking around with the boys and showering them with kisses.
As Jack grows up, it's clear that his relationships with his parents are having a profound effect on his upbringing. Each time his father comes down on him or one of his brothers, it becomes an impetus for Jack to engage in disruptive behavior. Likewise, his mother's goodness keeps Jack from indulging too much in his dark side.
There's no easy way to describe the format of The Tree of Life; Malick weaves together his themes about family and nature, sometimes changing abruptly from one to the other. There are long scenes with no dialogue at all, making the story anything but straightforward. That's the kicker: though The Tree of Life tells a story, it doesn't quite have a plot. It's more of an exploration of relationships and flashbacks. In a sense, you're entering Jack's inner psyche as he tries to make peace with himself and God.
As The Tree of Life unfolded before my eyes, I happily devoured a film that's unlike anything I've seen before. Slow, but not boring, affecting but not gripping, Malick's film leaves plenty of food for thought. However, that might just be the problem: I was engaged in the film because I wanted to find out where it was all going, but it's so open to interpretation that I hoped for a more satisfying ending. Still, it's a unique film that pushes the envelope and raises many questions; just don't expect to find any easy answers.