When it comes to the films of Terrence Malick, there seems to be two distinct schools of thought. The arthouse crowd often use words such as “lyrical” and “majestic” to describe his films; while his detractors on the other hand like to use words such as “pretentious” and “boring”. With his latest opus Tree of Life, Malick has made a film that supports both sides of the argument.
Tree of Life is the sprawling story of the origin of the universe examined through a family in 1950s America. Brad Pitt stars as a father determined to teach his sons about the harshness of life. He toughens them up by berating them at the dinner table and warns them that “in life, you can never be too good.” He’s especially hard on his oldest son Jack (Hunter McCracken), going as far as encouraging him to hit him while giving him life lessons. As a perfect contrast to Brad Pitt’s aggressive patriarch is Jessica Chastain’s wife/mother. She’s compassion personified; trying to influence her sons’ lives with affection and grace.
Malick strings together various moments of the family while cutting forward occasionally to the future to show us a grownup Jack (Sean Penn) trying to come to terms with how his family has come to shape his life. Monologues that come across as being pleads to the omnipotent force that’s governs each person’s life drift in and out during the course of the film, creating an ephemeral sense of reality. But not being content on just examining life on a micro level, Malick temporary abandons the family and takes the viewer on an odyssey through the beginning time; complete with images of volcanic eruptions and dinosaurs roaming.
One must applaud Malick for taking on something so ambitious in scope and insisting on presenting it in his own idiosyncratic way. Going in, I was more intrigued about the esoteric parts involving the creation of the universe over the melodrama. As it turns out though, the parts that works best in the film are the quiet scenes involving the family. They’re engaging to watch because of how vividly they capture the joys and pains of being a family. Less successful are the grand scenes of meteor showers, the spawning of single-cell organisms and those damn dinosaurs. While they are fun to watch, they don’t really offer anything to the narrative and are more distracting than profound.
The actors in this film need to be singled out for helping Malick with the heavy lifting. Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain are marvellous as parents doing the best they can to bring up their kids. The dynamic between the three brothers are easiest the lynchpin that holds the narrative together. As the eldest son Jack, Hunter McCracken is superb at conveying the bewilderment of adolescence. The most prestigious actor of the bunch is probably Sean Penn and he’s surprisingly given very little to do. He sleepwalks his way through the entire film, never coming across as a fully developed character.
I’m going to take the easy way out on the Terrence Malick debate and say both camps are right. Tree of Life is beautiful to look at, unfolds in a hypnotic pace, but stumbles with its overarching themes and once again proves that Malick is still incapable of telling a precise story.