Film Reviews

THE TREE OF LIFE

By • Jun 8th, 2011 •

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A stunning masterpiece. Pitt is phenomenal and fearless, staying true to his character’s flaws.

Writer-director Terrence Malick has iconic status since 1978’s DAYS OF HEAVEN. That was over 30 years ago and critics are still mentioning it? Imagine if you were constantly praised for something you did 35 years ago? How long can Malick hang on to the glory of DAYS OF HEAVEN?

With THE TREE OF LIFE, Malick triumphs with a remarkable, stunning masterpiece that easily eclipses DAYS OF HEAVEN.

I was astonished at the emotional wounds Malick exposed in THE TREE OF LIFE. For me, the film was the finest visual expression of memories. When you think about your childhood, is it a story in three acts or a series of images? Do your dreams have a narrative?

THE TREE OF LIFE is Malick’s childhood memories. I do not know if it is autobiographical but it is haunting in its realism. This is not a childhood you make up. This is a childhood someone – Malick – must have lived.

The memories are slices – not in chronological order – representing key incidents in the life of Jack O’Brien. The past is remembered by a mature Jack (Sean Penn), a successful Houston executive, clearly in some kind of emotional turmoil. He’s having a breakdown and is remembering his childhood and the impact his father had, and still has, on his life.

Pre-teen Jack (Hunter McCracken) lives with his parents, Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt), mother (Jessica Chastain) and two younger brothers in a small town in Texas in the 1950s. In the opening scenes, Malick keeps the camera away from Mr. O’Brien. He will not be an easy man to know.

One brother dies at 19 and the O’Brien marriage frays. We do not know the circumstances. Mr. O’Brien is a tough taskmaster, mean father, distant husband, and abuser. Mrs. O’Brien is the silent parent witnessing her husband’s cruelty. What do they violently argue about? Do children ever know what their parents are fighting over? It is hard to discipline boys and we see the effect an abusive father has on his children. Jack has developed a cruel streak – he and his friends fight and torture animals.

And then, in a hypnotic departure from the middle class life of a 1950s family, Malick displays nature exploding in a series of breathtaking images of galaxies and the violent birth of nature on Earth. We are shown the beginnings of life, dinosaurs and volcanoes erupting. What does this all mean and why does it interrupt the story of a Texas boy?

Whatever Malick’s reasoning – he wrote the screenplay – I have my own interpretation. Jack’s childhood was oppressive with a domineering father who was abusive to his wife and beat his children. Jack needed an escape and Malick uses the origins of life, violent and awesome, as that escape.

We see Mr. O’Brien’s temper, but when you have a movie star producing and starring, the violence is suggested. By showing Mrs. O’Brien’s passivity, Malick places some blame on her. Even though mature Jack is a hugely successful man, when he talks to his father on the phone he is still a frightened boy. What about Jack’s mother? By not mentioning Mrs. O’Brien, Malick indirectly blames her for not protecting her children from their father’s brutality.

Brad Pitt, who gained weight to portray a 1950s man, is fearless. It is a brave performance. Mr. O’Brien explains to Jack that he must be tough on his sons but he loves them. Was this a device that is required when you have a star of Pitt’s caliber? As an actor, you must justify your character’s actions thus: everyone comes from right. Everyone has a good reason for what they do. Movie stars like to play characters that the audience will like. (The Terminator came back in THE TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY as a good guy. Captain Jack Sparrow is no longer a ruthless gay pirate!)

THE TREE OF LIFE is unforgettable and anyone who had an unhappy childhood will feel its impact.

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