Amazon describes The Tree of Life as “the impressionistic story of a Midwestern family in the 1950’s. The film follows the life journey of the eldest son, Jack, as he tries to reconcile a complicated relationship with his father.” Jeez, it’s a wonder I didn’t watch this on my own before being forced to write a book report.
I don’t know where to begin with this self-important piece of tripe. I could tell you what the movie’s about (what happens) or I could tell you what it’s about. Having now watched it twice now, I’m not sure about either.
As for what happens, the thinnest narrative thread runs through this movie: there’s a poorish family in the 1950s. Brad Pitt is the asshole father who makes everyone’s life miserable, including the lovely Jessica Chastain and three boys who I’m sure always have dirt under their fingernails. He rages at his eldest son so hard that he grows up to be Sean Penn. Just think about how bad a parent you have to be to turn your kid into Sean Penn.
There are only 75 words of dialog in this 2 hour 18 minute movie, so that can’t be everything that happened. Oh yeah! Peppered throughout are a bunch of scenes related to the formation of the Earth, evolution of life on the planet, and even fucking dinosaurs. You’d think these would fit perfectly with a 1950s family drama, but for me they were a real drag for me, since I was really enjoying watching Brad Pitt be mean to his kids. Maybe all these scenes are related after all. It’s possible I fell asleep at the part where they show Sean Penn evolving from a dinosaur or where Jessica Chastain is born from star dust, not sure. Maybe Terrence Malick is trying to show us that it took billions of years of luck, struggle, and cosmic alignment and all the universe has to show for it is Sean Penn. What a let down.
As for what The Tree of Life is about, the easy money is that this is some masturbatory reflection on nature vs. grace. Malick spends the first few minutes discussing these in hushed whispers for the viewer and then ham-fistedly gives you two main characters in Pitt and Chastain that are meant to personify these ideas. Thanks, Uncle Terry, we get it.
Or maybe Terrence Malick wasn’t trying to say anything. Maybe he blew his budget on fancy visuals showing nebulae and dinosaurs and was forced to use his remaining $75 on shooting B-roll, which he stitched together with some important sounding choral music and frequent breathy voiceovers. This seems like the most likely answer. It makes a lot more sense than trying to find meaning in a coming-of-age period piece about a dinosaur that grows up to be Sean Penn.