Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life is an ambitious and brave piece of work that I certainly admired but sadly couldn’t bring myself to fully enjoy. The film attempts to address the meaning of life by tracing the life of Jack O’Brian (Hunter McCracken/Sean Penn) and his relationship with his stern father (Brad Pitt), nurturing mother (Jessica Chastain) and younger brother.
The film cuts back and forth between Jack’s childhood upbringing in 1950’s suburban Texas and his seemingly melancholy adult self (Sean Penn) still attempting to come to grips with the death of his brother. In between all of this, Malick includes lengthy National Geographic style sequences featuring dinosaurs, sea creatures, microbes, cosmic eruptions and breathtaking nature imagery. Although I understood how these sequences tied into the film’s main storyline of creation and destruction, I couldn’t help but feel that they were distracting, obtrusive and at times overly lengthy. One can compare these vignettes to those in 2001: A Space Odyssey; however, the late Stanley Kubric somehow made it all work in a superior film.
The performances in the film are quite strong, especially Pitt’s portrayal of Mr. O’Brian, the often abusive yet loving father who’s character is symbolic of nature’s brutality and grace. Sadly, the performances can’t carry this picture above Malick’s fragmented style of storytelling which makes the audience feel like a distant observer travelling back and forth through time and space. We never feel completely invested in the characters or their stories simply because the film does not flesh them out (with the exception of Pitt’s character); all too often the script relies on visual imagery rather than dialogue, which makes the characters appear like an afterthought. I believe the film would have benefited from spending more time exploring Jack’s adult years. Instead, we are provided with a brief cameo from Sean Penn in which we are supposed to assume that Jack (now an architect) leads an unfulfilled yet financially successful life.
By the finale, rather than being enlightened, I was left feeling empty and quite frankly a bit bored. This is not to say that I don’t enjoy Terrence Malick’s work; I thought his underrated WWII drama, The Thin Red Line was in some ways superior to the more popular Saving Private Ryan, which was released during the same year. Nevertheless, despite its shortcomings, The Tree of Life deserves at least one viewing for its sheer scope and ambitious storytelling technique that attempts to tackle possibly the most important questions of all: how did we come to be and what is the meaning of our existence?