Well, The core of The Tree of Life is a stream of consciousness narrative of a young boy growing up in mid-20th Century Texas, living his childhood through two very different parents, a domineering father (Brad Pitt), and a beatific mother (newcomer Jessica Chastain). This is the main narrative and takes up at least 2/3 of the movie. The other part includes Biblical quotations, the origin of the universe, evolution, dinosaurs, and (perhaps) the afterlife. Suffice to say that this is not a traditional summer movie. So, is it a masterpiece or an overly ambitious, philosophical bore?
You can put me firmly in the masterpiece corner. I'm a big fan of Terrence Malick (see below), and I've definitely anticipated this movie for a while. It's a bit hard to even talk about this movie, so I'll start with the core of the movie and work my way out. I don't think I've ever seen a portrait of childhood (especially of boyhood) portrayed so accurately, beautifully, and painfully on screen. As we see Jack enter the world, discover nature and his family, and, eventually, struggle with his own demons, the story is told through moments both momentous and mundane. Isn't that how life is remembered? Brad Pitt is absolutely wonderful as the stern father, a character that is easy to both understand and vilify. The visuals, too, are absolutely stunning. Malick creates such a mood of reflection that I was almost oblivious to how much time had passed. I was content to spend time in Jack's life and watch glimpses as he grew up.
And onto the other parts of the movie (and a slight spoiler alert, I suppose). After a brief introduction the family, we follow the creation of the universe, evolution, and a conflicted dinosaur making a moral choice. Malick is ambitious, and this section of the movie (where many walkouts occur) resembles more a narrator-less nature show rather than a conventional movie. I was transfixed and mesmerized by the visuals and by thinking about its connection to the main story. The ending, where some characters are reunited, including the adult Jack (played by Sean Penn), is also visually beautiful, but I'm a little more conflicted as to its potency. I didn't dislike it, but I would definitely say it's on a slightly lower level than the rest of the movie.
To put it simply, I was blown away by The Tree of Life, although I understand it's not for all tastes. Lacking a driving narrative (beyond remembered moments), it's more of a movie to watch and let yourself be carried away in the visuals and philosophical questions it raises. I think it's one of the most important American movies in a long time.
The Complete Terrence Malick
Terrence Malick is a legendarily elusive and painstaking director. He came onto the scene in 1973 with Badlands and has only made 5 features.
If there's an image I associate with Malick, it's of insects on a blade of grass. It's very possible that every single one of his movies contain this image. Malick is interested in human stories, but also how they fit into the larger fold. He's also a filmmaker intimately concerned with the spiritual realm. Days of Heaven contains Biblical elements of judgment, The Thin Red Line seems to be almost a Buddhist war movie, and The Tree of Life has a hefty dose of Christian theology on sin, goodness, and evil. Malick views his characters, as small (migrant farmworkers in Days of Heaven) or large (Pocahantas and John Smith in The New World) as they are, as elements in a grander scheme.
Malick also has voiceover narration in each one of his movies, an element that allows us to think philosophically while admiring the stunning visuals of each of his movies. Here's my rankings of his output.
1. The New World (2005). I didn't see this movie until last year, and I was absolutely blown away. Malick tells the story of the Jamestown settlement and the meeting of John Smith and Pochahontas. What I love about this movie is its sense of discovery and newness, even while acknowledging the pain and death involved in this exploration and meeting. The spirit of nature suffuses the film, and I think this may have one of my favorite endings of all time.
2. The Tree of Life (2011). See above!
3. Badlands (1973). Perhaps the least typical of Malick's films. I see this movie as the anti-Bonnie and Clyde. It's about a young sociopath, played by Martin Sheen, who seduces a young girl (Sissy Spacek), kills her father, and embarks on a killing spree. These lovers on the lam aren't at all noble, they're just sad and confused and possibly mentally ill. Sissy Spacek gives a spectacularly weird performance, and Malick makes great use of discordant narration to create an unsettling and fascinating movie.
4. Days of Heaven (1978). I recently watched this movie a second time, and it really grew on me. It's the story of migrant workers (one played by a young Richard Gere) who travel to Texas and try to con a wealthy farmer. It also includes interesting narration by a young girl which comments and deepens the action. A relatively simple story, told in short takes and minimal dialogue, that allows for thoughtful reflection on fate and life's choices.
5. The Thin Red Line (1998). While the only one of Malick's films to earn a Best Picture nomination (although I'm keeping my fingers crossed for The Tree of Life), for me this is Malick's least successful film. It's the antithesis to a traditional war film, filled with almost no great sacrifice or reward. Soldiers fight and reflect. Some die, some live. The visuals in this movie are amazing and I love the idea of turning the war movie on its head. Unfortunately, the meditations and philosophy got a little repetitive and overlong and there are also so many famous actors in small roles in this movie that it almost becomes distracting from the story. Nonetheless, this is definitely a worthwhile and ambitious film.