The Tree of Life is a dreamy, hypnotic meditation on – perhaps? – life, the creation of Earth, the impact of the natural world on human beings, and the never-ending efforts of people to connect and understand.
In addition to numerous scenes of boiling volcanoes and crashing surf – among other things (who would have expected to see CGI dinosaurs in a Terrence Malick film?) – there are humans, a very human family, living in a small town and leading relatively small lives. The major force in their world is the father, Mr. O’Brien, played by Brad Pitt, whose mercurial nature and high expectations simultaneously draw his family close and push them away. In one scene, O’Brien tries to teach one of his young sons the meaning of a line you can’t cross, repeatedly drawing a line in the grass. It’s as futile as anything he tries to do. Mrs. O’Brien is played delicately by Jessica Chastain, in her first breakout performance of 2011. The photos of her between Pitt and Sean Penn at the Cannes Film Festival showed a woman entranced. She deserves the kudos and recognition of her talent – compared with Kirsten Dunst in Melancholia, her performance is grounded and real.
The boys who play the three O’Brien children, particularly Hunter McCracken as the oldest, are similarly natural and hold their own with the talented adults. McCracken plays Jack, the most tormented by his father’s smothering love and furious rages, who grows up to be a man apparently lost, played by Sean Penn. The elder Jack seems to be struggling to come to grips with all that happened in their small-town life – he is now an architect in a world of skyscrapers and glass, but seems desperate for nature. The Tree of Life is reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey in terms of pace, cinematography, music, and mood. The film ends with a Fellini-esque scene of dreamlike reunion and reconciliation. Make of it what you will.
The Tree of Life is available on DVD from Netflix and elsewhere.