'The Tree of Life' is the latest film by Terrence Malick who is a director that polarizes audiences with a unique blend of breathtaking cinematography and abstract story telling. His films tend to be meant as life lessons and not just put on the screen for Saturday matinee style entertainment and this one pulls out all the stops to give viewers a reality check on existence and purpose.
The main story that we follow throughout the movie is of a man named Jack (Sean Penn) and the introspective reflections he has of his family while growing up in 1950's America. As they struggle through lessons of love, life, loss, and fear, we see the father, Mr. O'Brien (Brad Pitt), facing the prospect of raising his sons and maintaining a family while fighting for success in his professional life.
Jack, in his younger years (Hunter McCracken), is struggling to balance what he learns from each of his parents and, as he grows older, begins to lash out in protest of the two conflicting views on life. Mr. O'Brien believes in obtaining success at any cost and getting ahead is truly survival of the fittest while Mrs. O'Brien (Jessica Chastain) takes a more spiritual path and believes love and forgiveness are the true keys to happiness.
Where this movie literally and figuratively shoots for the cosmos is how the family as a whole dwells on life, existence, and purpose as each of them reflect on the loss of a family member. Mostly at the beginning and again near the end, we see images of the universe from the heavenly glory of a far off galaxy to the mundane flow of a random waterfall.
We see an encapsulated version of the creation of life on our planet as it advances over the millenia from sea creatures to dinosaurs and eventually to the modern world that we know and live in. Questions of faith versus science and spirituality versus a singular fate are all touched on although one side is never favored over another and you never really feel like you are receiving a lecture or being preached to.
I believe the ultimate goal of the director is to give food for thought and to show that it is important to have love in you life and to not squander any of the time you have no matter what your purpose or beliefs might be. This is definitely not a film for everyone as it is very methodical in its pacing and often veers off in random directions to expand on its themes of life and happiness in the universe.
Fans of cinematography will find a lot to admire in what is being called a masterpiece of visual story telling, although what really drew me in was the emotional dynamics of the family and how well the relationships are portrayed between each of them. I was most impressed with the acting of Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain as both give very believable performances and are perfectly in tune with who their characters are supposed to be and what they represent.
Just like any other Terrance Malick film, you will find every possibly opinion from critics and movie goers on whether the film is good, bad, indulgent, far fetched, brilliant, crazy, confusing, and everything in between. To me this just shows how personal of an experience his films are and, while I didn't walk away with a new outlook on life or feeling like I just witnessed an amazing piece of film making, I felt that this was a decent story with very solid acting performances.