It is undeniably brilliant in important ways.
You won't see another movie like this one. American made and winner of the Palme d'Or at Cannes, TheTree of Life is a grand, bold risk of a film. You may like it, or not; you may understand it, or not. But it is undeniably brilliant in important ways. Such risks can spring only from a creative mind that wrestles big questions. That would be writer/director Terrence Malick who has leapt up from a sea of summer mediocrity to ask us to think..
A telegram is delivered to a mother. It is an announcement that her son is dead; it is also firm notice that we are about to navigate the tree of life through this 1950s Texas family - Mr. O'Brien (Brad Pitt) and Mrs. O'Brien (Jessica Chastain), their son Jack (Hunter McCracken) and Jack's two younger brothers. Jack is the pivot for the family and for the movie.
When we meet him as an adult (Sean Penn) we realize the flashbacks we are seeing are Jack's actual memories, indelible flashes of his childhood that tell the family story. The formal father dispenses love and discipline with the tough demands he believes necessary to the boys' future success. The deferential mother, contained in everything but her love for her boys, is an ethereal presence, a permanent, reliable source of love.
It is she who says at the outset that nature is brutal and selfish, pleasing only itself, and that only looking toward God can bring grace. And so the conflict is drawn - nature and grace - as we explore the tree of life. The forces of nature are always there - water, fire - weather, but grace? Everyone in this family calls out in some way "Where were you (God)?" - when our brother/son died.
Since it is futile - in a two hour movie - to speculate on the state of the universe before earth began, Malick presents us with an unexpectedly long period of painterly abstraction that flows into prolonged and humbling filming of volcanoes, waterfalls, and storms. He has covered himself well. This could be either the big bang or God's work. After the arrival of creatures -jellyfish and dinosaurs - triggers the life cycle - we settle at last in Texas to watch the O'Briens fill their children's world with nature and love.
The loving gestures in this family, the growth of the wonderfully wriggly boys as they play in the outdoors are done nearly wordlessly and in a way that is absolutely beautiful. Malick has managed a universal sweetness that may possibly affect everyone in the audience on some personal level.
If the father is the brutality of nature and the mother the path to grace, as Malick said earlier, it has to be the way of one or the other. You can't have both. You'll have many questions, but it's my guess you'll be glad you were there for this astonishing deluge from Mr. Malick's original mind.
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