The Tree of Life was released in 2011 to split audience reactions. Some audiences applauded Malick for his lofty ambition and rich visual splendour; others loathed the movie, scoffed at its portentous voiceovers, and were exasperated by the lack of a traditional narrative. As a fan of Malick, it has taken me a long time to get around to seeing this movie; maybe I was afraid I would fall into the latter category of spectator. I'm delighted to say that I really loved this movie. I would not say Malick's ambition was entirely fulfilled but I found it to be a genuine and worthy attempt to create an absolute masterpiece, evoking Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey in its grand vision. While it may have tumbled short of the masterful, it remains a very powerful work of art.
The movie's opening lines, wistfully recited by Jessica Chastain, suggest that we are torn between our divine nature and our animal nature. This is the basic theme of the movie, the exploration of which, branches out towards larger ideas of cosmology and spirituality. Malick makes his vast ambition known early on by including a profound and visually spectacular interlude, encompassing no less than the formation of the universe and the birth of earthly existence. This sequence depicts incredible celestial spectacles, meteor strikes, the big bang and the evolution of sea-life, floral life etc. Then, there is a questionable scene with dinosaurs that I'm still a little undecided about, where a healthy dinosaur appears to show mercy to an injured dinosaur. The metaphor (I'm guessing the birth of compassion or morality) may be vaguely appropriate to the film as a whole but I found the image of digital dinosaurs a trifle off-putting. The CGI was not awful, but conspicuous enough to abolish the spell cast on me by a hitherto wonderful sequence.
In the wake of these grandiose events the movie settles into a personal coming-of-age tale, involving the lives of the O'Brien family in 1950's America. The story is perceived from the point of view of the eldest child, Jack(Hunter McCracken), and habitually cuts to the present day, grown-up and faintly disillusioned Jack(Sean Penn), who is working as an architect in some modern metropolis. We know little else about the present day Jack, save that his younger brother R.L has died under unspecified circumstances and that his relations with his father are far from perfect. Jack is apparently undergoing some spiritual crisis which leads him to reflect upon his own youth. His memories of childhood are alternately bittersweet and painful, and there is an added poignancy in his recollections of his deceased younger brother, who he remembers in a very favourable light, at once kind and trusting.
Brad Pitt is superb as the father of the O'Brien household, a subtle and complicated character. His behaviour with his family switches without warning between paternal affection and strict disciplinary. You believe he loves his children and wishes the best for them, but his methods can be harsh and he is beginning to awaken a sullen resentment in Jack. Jessica Chastain embodies the graceful and sweet-natured mother. She is shot in such a way that she seems almost ethereal; an earthbound angel and a paragon of maternal purity. The children are fond of her but also take advantage of her timidity.
Children in movies are often annoyingly cutesy, pint-sized creatures; Here is one of those rare movies where you see children portrayed as they really are. This films portrayal of youth is heartfelt and evocative. It is not dramatized or sentimentalized but rather feels like someone's vivid yet fragmented memories of childhood played out on a screen for us. In scenes where the children are playing idle games against the fading light, bored at a church service or play-fighting with one another, you almost feel that Malick must have filmed these young actors without them knowing, so natural and uninhibited are their performances. Hunter McCracken in particular is brilliant as the young Jack. He has a difficult role at the emotional helm of the movie. Jack is going through a gloomy and disobedient stage of childhood and McCracken's expressions perfectly convey the inner defiance, pain and sensitivity of the character.
The film regularly veers off on spiritual and cosmological tangents, which often result in stunning images and fascinating contemplations. But in my opinion the movie is at heart a personal and genuine coming-of-age drama. This is a very powerful and affecting movie.