Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life : Movie Review

The Tree of Life (2011)

Language - English
Genre - Drama
**ing - Brad Pitt, Sean Penn and Jessica Chastain
Release - 2011

It's incredible that a film-maker with only five films to his directorial credit, since his 1974 debut Badlands, continues to evoke such strong emotions that transcends the art-house and the mainstream. After a hiatus of nearly 6 years since the mediocre, only by his own standards, The New World, Terrence Malick returns with a meditative and surreal sojourn set in an ethereal world, and the critics have relished the experience. 

Amidst a whirlwind of gratuitous expectations, The Tree of Life premiered at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival and walked away with the highly coveted Palme d'Or. Since then, it's been a regular at Film-Festivals across the globe winning countless awards and admiration.

The Tree of Life is a non-linear narrative revolving around the O’Brien’s. The films begins with Jack O'Brien (Sean Penn), a modern architect in the present day, reminiscing about his vivacious childhood and teen years in Waco, Texas in the 1950s. In 1960s, the O'Brien parents receive the news of the death of Jack's younger brother. The tragic news leaves the heart-broken religious Mrs. O'Brien (Jessica Chastain) perplexed as to the divine intent, and the strict disciplinarian Mr. O'Brien (Brad Pitt) question his methods of raising their children, wishing he was more gentle and kind with their weaknesses. But the film feels disrupted with the next segment that has polarized opinions across the board. 

Terrence Malick's tableaux of cosmic splendor en-trailed with the big bang, exploding stars, galactic formations, and the evolution and circle of life with single celled organism to predatory sharks to dinosaurs and the asteroid that caused their extinction, fills you with wonder about the majesty of the universe, from celestial bodies at the end of one spectrum to human lives with our emotions intertwined in a giant canvas. The extended and tedious montage could well be dismissed as a self indulgent excess on part of the visionary film-maker, and for valid reasons. It none-the-less is a brave attempt at a zen-like experience that transcends the narrative to a metaphysical state.

But it's the latter half of the film that really communicates and is easily the most accessible. The scenes are overwhelmed by moments of reflection, with the voice-over bearing the mantle of narrative as we see O'Brien parents falling in love, getting married, bearing children, their first steps and baptism; the start of a new family. Brad Pitt is brilliant as the patriarch of the family, an engineer who believes in a strict code of discipline to prepare the children for achieving their dreams. His own experience as a failed musician largely motivating his perspective. Chastain shines with her performance as the religious and selfless wife and mother, often caught between the duty to her husband and love for her children. 

The Tree of Life discovers it's most fervent energy in the rebellion of the younger Jack O'Brien (Hunter McCracken) to the dictums of his father, as he goes through the mental turmoil and sexual awakening of teen years tearing apart the family, and their eventual reconciliation. Never has a story of family relations revolving around love, hope and tragedy been told with such poetic beauty, and with a vision as grand as Terrence Malick's.