A boy grows up and also we see the history of life on Earth in The Tree of Life, the current Most Important Movie Ever.
Perhaps you’ve seen the trailers for this movie — there’s pretty music, lush scenes of 1950s suburbia, a pretty mom, people whispering things, deserts, a dinosaur, the Earth, Brad Pitt telling a little kid to punch him. It might seem disconnected, but that’s basically what we’re dealing with here: a movie about everything. And maybe also about nothing.
In terms of story, we’ve got a father (Brad Pitt) and mother (Jessica Chastain) and their oldest boy, whose name I don’t recall ever hearing but according to Internet Movie Database it’s Jack (Hunter McCracken). Jack and his two younger brothers are growing up in a 1950s Everytown — playing on lawns, running after DDT trucks, etc. Jack’s mother is a loving woman who teaches her boys to look at the world with a sense of optimism and kindness (“the way of grace” is how the movie puts it). Jack’s father is a frustrated man — he seems to wish he was a musician, to wish he got more credit for his engineering work. That frustration manifests itself as anger at his boys’ wildness and harshness as he pushes them to be better men than him. He is “the way of nature, ” I guess, the opposite to the gentle mother.
The movie begins with a death in the family — one taking place about a decade after the scenes of the boys’ childhood, I think. Also near the beginning, we meet Jack (Sean Penn) as a man, years after both the childhood and the later death, who still hasn’t reconciled his feelings about his family.
Also, there’s an extended sequence where we see the history of Earth from beginning (as in In the Beginning, with lava and oceans and stuff) through the first signs of life up to the point where a meteor hits the Earth, which I think is supposed to mark the extinction of the dinosaurs. Later, we also see what I’m pretty sure is the end of life on Earth when the sun expands and chars it to a crisp.
There’s also a sequence that, I don’t know, takes place in a sort of heaven maybe. Sure, let’s say it’s in heaven (which appears to be a beach — I’ll agree with that).
The movie is narrated (sort of) by different characters — Jack at his two ages, the mother, the father — talking or praying to God. Or maybe not God in the “God” sense, maybe more like The Universe but from the point of view of their inner lives. And narration is probably the wrong word for it — “shaped by snippets of inner monologue” might be a better way to describe it.
I can’t even imagine what the 15-second elevator pitch for this movie is.
OK, so I’m being a little glib in my description of a movie that people seem to be falling all over themselves with love for. There are parts of it — even the wackier parts of the stuff I’ve described — that sound horrible as I’m trying to reduce them to a synopsis but were enjoyable or at least engrossing to watch unfold. That whole history-of-Earth segment is fascinating — weird (how many times do dinosaurs pop up in most dramas about family turmoil?) but fascinating. Scenes of the 1950s family have a kind of nostalgic haze at times — they are nearly always lovely to look at. The boys are fascinating characters — being mean to each other, watching out for each other, reacting in different ways to their parents. And Pitt makes a nice character study of his complicated head of the family.
There are other parts that work less well for me. Everything with Sean Penn, for example. I don’t know if it’s Penn himself or the way he plays the role or the role as we see it at that time period or some combination of the above, but scenes with adult Jack were excruciating in their lack of anythingness, like a dentist’s waiting room with two-year-old magazines. Two-year-old Cat Fancy and fishing enthusiast magazines.
Those interior thoughts, some of which wonder about the nature of God and self, lead to languorous scenes of skies or kids running around a wild outdoors. Some of this is very lovely. Some of it is very lovely and, you know, not so much on task.
And what is that task, what is the movie saying, what is it about? I would say that “everything,” “nothing” and “a kid and his parents” are all acceptable answers. Also, I think the answer to the question “is the movie a beautiful work of experiential art or is it a windbag of artiness for artiness’s sake?” is probably “yes.”
I think it is just as fair for an avid film-lover to not love any superhero movie made in the last two years as it is for a different film-lover not to flip out over this movie. The Tree of Life is truly a “how does it move you” kind of film — you may be bored, you may be entranced, you may be both. I was closer to the watch-checking end of the scale. There is so much happening in the movie’s nearly two and a half hours, so many big beautiful clouds rolling in but they do it so slowly and, much like clouds rolling in, big set pieces of the movie feel interesting but not relevant. The Tree of Life is slow and stunning, masterfully crafted and overworked. B-
PG-13 for some thematic material. Written and directed by Terrence Malick, The Tree of Life is two hours and 18 minutes long and distributed in wide release by Fox Searchlight Pictures.