Print this Article
Thursday, Aug. 11, 2011 11:05 pm

The intriguing and ponderous Tree of Life


Brad Pitt stars as Mr. O’Brien in The Tree of Life.

Brilliant yet maddening, skillful yet pretentious, Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life is a polemic work if ever there was one. At once an examination of a Texas family during the 1950s, the film juxtaposes their trials alongside images of the heavens and earth being created, a brief glimpse of dinosaurs and perhaps the awakening of compassion. There are scenes in which the presence of God is questioned as is the value of faith, concluding with the director’s vision of the afterlife. This is heavy lifting, and it has its rewards. Malick not only dares to take on these heady subjects but also leaves us with more questions than answers where they’re concerned.

Composed of shots of the cosmos intercut with images from today and flashbacks to the 50s, the film’s narrative focuses on Jack O’Brien (Sean Penn), a disgruntled architect, adrift in a cold urban setting, ruminating on his childhood. We catch glimpses of him playing with his two brothers, Steve and R.L. (Tye Sheridan and Laramie Eppler), see him dealing with his domineering father (Brad Pitt), find refuge with his kind mother (Jessica Chastain) and endure all manner of growing pains which will ultimately have a profound effect upon him.

Malick strays from a traditional narrative structure as much as he dares and the result is a cascade of Jack’s random memories. This is an intriguing and effective technique. I couldn’t help but find myself recalling similar events in my own childhood, which drew me into the story and helped me empathize with young Jack in a far greater way than could a story told chronologically. Most intriguing is the father, played by Pitt in a strong, understated manner, who finds himself torn between following his own dreams and providing for his family, which leads to nothing but frustration. On the other hand, the mother is far more religious and finds in religion a place of refuge where she can hide from her unhappiness, though this is tested when an unspeakable tragedy befalls the O’Briens.

The Tree of Life will leave many angry, others rapt with the questions it poses and probably all those who take a chance on it (and you should) eager to discuss its merits and faults, themes and ponderings. Whether it’s a good or bad film is beside the point, as those are relative terms, personal decisions and matters Malick himself could give two hoots about. The point is that the film does what any great art should, which is prompt those who see it to think. That this is a radical notion for film at the dawn of the 21st century is to our shame. Thankfully, Malick hasn’t forgotten that art is intended to provoke and he’s brave enough to use the cinema in this way.

Contact Chuck Koplinski at