For cinephiles everywhere, Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life” has been an event too long in the making. After the torturous wait, as the film’s release was delayed year after year, we finally live in a world where “The Tree of Life” is a reality.
Featuring Brad Pitt and the soon-to-be-ubiquitous Jessica Chastain as parents during the 1950s, “The Tree of Life” loosely charts the influence of each parent on their children and the effect that takes. This result is reflected as one of their sons grows up and is played by Sean Penn in present day. These two narratives are intensely juxtaposed with a larger macro vision of influence on life — the creation of earth. If this sounds like it might be disparate, confusing or just plain weird, then you’re only just starting to understand the unique complexity of this film. With this, it becomes quickly evident that there is no way to discuss or watch this without opening up to the larger philosophical discussions at hand, for that is all there really is.
Malick leads the audience through a thoroughly visual story, reading more as a cinematic essay, or dare I say a “text in conversation,” than a traditional film. Wondrous and powerful images of space, nature and, most intriguingly, dinosaurs, are not only sprinkled throughout the conventional narrative, but are woven into a 15-minute visual opera of the creation of the universe. A spiritual if not entirely religious overtone is carried throughout, as the inexorable forces of nature are pitted against the passive yet ever powerful notions of grace and mercy.
This tension is a repetitive theme, as Pitt becomes the overbearing and relentless father and the serene Chastain the embodiment of grace. Fortunately, both actors are extremely capable and manage to create dynamic characters while also working within this more holistic framework. Their partnership is a magical experience, imbued with a certain spontaneity from the director.
Much of the absolutely gorgeous film is captured as if it were a series of memories from a childhood — possibly your own. The children play kick-the-can in the street, they chase their mother with a lizard throughout the house, and it always feels as if you knew them, were them. The memories float ephemerally by, and each is exploding with energy. The same fleeting instances find a connection with nature. The trees, flowers, lizards, frogs and, yes, even the dinosaurs are as much characters in the film as Sean Penn, all contributing to a larger, grander message that always seems just out of reach, like a dream remembered too late in the morning.
Here at the Cannes Film Festival, “The Tree of Life” has sparked a bit of a controversy after a series of boos at the first screening. Some have hated it, calling it pretentious and saying it values style over substance. There is truly more to this film than that, but it is so visually new and different that it’s bound to cause a discussion about the religion, philosophy and purpose of cinema as a whole. For a fun Friday night out with friends, this may not be the best choice. But for a film with imagery this powerful and a message so elusive, it deserves to be seen in a theater with a long coffee break afterward to discuss and digest the scenes. Most importantly, it deserves to be seen, for better or for worse.