Tree of Life

Beautiful Confusion

Main Cast: Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, Jessica Chastain

Director: Terrence Malick

Hmm. The Tree of Life is, er….um…different. Yes, different from your average movie. Director Terrence Malick’s Oscar nominated film has some portions that are beautiful to look at, some that are gorgeous to listen to and some that are dramatically gripping. Those portions just don’t come together in any sort of traditional structure.

The Tree of Life is basically the story of a family. Mother (Jessica Chastain), Father (Brad Pitt) and three young sons (newcomers Hunter McCracken, Laramie Eppler and Tye Sheridan). If it were told in a traditional, linear fashion, it would be the story of the eldest child, Jack (McCracken) and his coming of age in the late fifties/early sixties. He has a strict, unhappy father and a gentle, nurturing mother who offer opposing approaches to life. He grows into a man who never really resolved that internal conflict.

But this isn’t a traditional film, not in any sense of the word. That brief story outline is but the tiny core of the movie, which plays with whispery narrative voice, nonlinear structure, visual imagery and a vast classical score that swirls with gravitas throughout the entire proceedings. We see the earth forming, jump from young Jack to grown Jack (Sean Penn), hear his mother’s pleadings to her god, listen to the music that his father loves but could never make a career. Malick experiments with sight and sound and story, often leaving the viewing audience clueless as to his intent as we watch the pretty pictures float past.

I didn’t like The Tree of Life. I didn’t hate it, either. I recognize it as a beautifully executed experimental film that is undoubtedly absolutely gorgeous on the big screen and with surround sound. Personally, I tired of the experimentation and just wanted the story to be told. In that respect, the movie failed me – I didn’t feel the story was complete or solidly grounded enough to make me really care about the people involved. While I admire the artistry involved in the visuals and score, they simply take up too much of the film for my taste – I would have preferred Malick sacrifice some of the art house experimentation in favor of more development of his characters and their lives.

The Tree of Life isn’t going to be a movie for everybody. I didn’t really enjoy it as a whole, though in parts was enthralled. Pitt and Chastain do very, very well presenting their characters as representative of opposing world views in human form. Hunter McCracken has a brooding young presence, perfectly suiting the adult casting of Penn as Grown Up Jack. Laramie Eppler as the middle son is angelic – loving and gentle – as the ultimate focus of collective existential angst. Clearly a labor of love and art, Malick put together an interesting if inaccessible pondering of life and death, nature and faith, love and hate and how man has been dancing with all of them since the dawn of time. If you don’t like art house or experimental film, don’t see The Tree of Life. Chances are good that you will hate it. If that’s your thing, this film is a beautifully executed example. If you’re like me and willing to try most everything, give it a shot. You may fall in love with the stunning visuals and score. Or you may find yourself interested but ultimately disappointed and lost in the weirdness. That’s where I fall. But I’ll give the movie 3 stars out of 5 for the outstanding visual and aural presentation as well as the performances. It’s an interesting choice for a Best Picture nomination, that’s for sure.

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