I had heard great things about, The Tree of Life from people. The trailer was beautiful and engaging. So when I sat down with a group of friends to watch it, I expected a film that everyone at the end would refer to as, “The best film of the year!” Instead we were all left scratching our heads.
I will now tell you what I think this film is about. I say, I think, because this film has no clear narrative.
The plot revolves around Jack as a boy (portrayed by Hunter McCracken) and as an adult (played by Sean Penn.) struggling with his faith in God and which path in life he should truly walk, the path of Grace or the path of Nature.
Jack’s parents, a hardened father (Brad Pitt) and his gentle, loving mother (Jessica Chastain), each represent a path Jack could journey down. His mother represents the path of Grace; a path that is forgiving and keeps no record or wrongs. His father represents the path of Nature; a path that is unforgiving, full of hard truths and unfulfilling work.
We learn early on that Jack’s brother (whose name we don’t learn, played by Laramie Eppler) dies at age 19. My guess is that he dies in Vietnam based on the timeline of this film. The audience never really knows for sure. Of course, Jack’s brother has to die becasue we see throughout the film that the brother chooses the path of Grace and cannot survive when forced to walk the path of Nature.
Jack on the other hand is raised for a little while by the path of Grace, but the path of Nature intervenes and takes over the raising of Jack. As he gets older, Jack is hardened and angry as he has become his father and walked the path of Nature. We see intermittent shots of Jack as an adult struggling with this. Finally, the path of Nature comes around to truly appreciate the path of Grace and it causes more conflict in Jack. Eventually as an adult, Jack embraces the mixture of both and accepts that God is a mixture of both. Oh, and there’s a third brother we don’t ever see much. Don’t get his name either.
Again, that’s what I think this film is about. All of that story is intercut with disembodied voices, and a 20-minute “creation on the world” scene. The creation scene is visually gorgeous but seems like its own short film in the midst of this one. There are quite a few other beautifully shot scenes of nature and of Sean Penn wandering around but leaving the audience wondering how they all fit together.
Terrence Malick has never been considered a mainstream filmmaker but this film seems even a stretch for him. It felt like those times when your mom wants to tell a story and she can see all the parts of that story in her head, but she cannot remember the order of events or everyone’s names.
The Tree of Life is a visually gorgeous piece of film but I think Malick could have still kept all the beauty and still given the audience a clearer narrative. The lack of clear storyline left me only kind of caring about the characters and really only feeling for them in ways that are on the surface. Of course I should care about the boy whose father is too hard on him. It’s not a film that creates a deep emotional connection.
If I was just looking for a film to leave on in the background of an party to look cool, The Tree of Life would be the choice. However, I came looking for a story and only got parts of one. It would be nice to see a different version of the same film with less eye candy and more heart.
The Combo Pack comes with a Blu-ray, a DVD, and a Digital Copy Disc. The Blu-ray offers 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio and a single extra “Exploring The Tree of Life”. It has also been released by the Criterion Collection.