Rating: 5 stars out of 5
There were a lot of walk outs at the preview screening of Terrence Malick’s Palme D’Or winner. We don’t blame them. The first 30 minutes, after a quick introduction to the O’Brien family, consisted mainly of BBC Planet Earth and Space documentary-style footage. It was hard to see if you were looking at the gigantic or the minute, as the images, which looked absolutely breathtaking on the big screen, flowed past without any clue to their intent.
There was even a brief encounter between two dinosaurs that was a bit of a head-scratcher, until it’s examined across the bigger picture of the movie and its message of smaller moments and mercies.
After that half-hour the movie refocused on the O’Briens, led by the stern Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt) and the wife he hardly ever talks to, played by Jessica Chastain. The two have three boys; the oldest played by Jack (Hunter McCracken), who grows up to be played by Sean Penn, a seemingly depressed architect.
While Jack is the main focus of the film, don’t expect a straight narrative flow or plot structure. The film is done in an impressionistic way, with snippets of the family’s life woven together. All we can see is that Mr. O’Brien becomes more frustrated with life and becoming sterner, while Jack gradually loses his innocence and also becomes more cruel, particularly towards middle brother Steve (Tye Sheridan), who bears a remarkable resemblance to a young Brad Pitt.
Malick never quite reveals what he’s getting at, and like a great piece of art, lets the audience decipher the meaning that they see in the film. Some sequences never quite build up to anything; such as the children imbibing the fumes from a DDT truck, but others suggest consequences in the relationship within the family.
It’s all shot beautifully, with bits of magical realism thrown in, such as Mrs. O’Brien flying and dancing around a tree. It all builds up to the ending where the adult Jack reconciles with his family in an afterlife of sorts.
The visual effects were done by Douglas Trumbull, who worked on Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and unsurprisingly, Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, which might be why they do seem familiar.
An exploration on the meaning of existence, The Tree of Life is undoubtedly a film that will divide audiences, but it’s a highly spiritual film about what our time in the world means. It asks big questions, yet examines the small moments of our lives.
Some may find it as exciting as watching a tree grow, but others might find a deeper message within this exhilarating masterpiece.