The Tree of Life, nominated for Best Picture, Director, and Cinematography Oscars and winner of AFI’s Best Picture of 2011, is one of those films that few can attempt and even fewer can accomplish. It is also one of those films, at least one a year, that Academy voters and Cannes adore but most of us can’t exactly figure out why. It is a story within a story, in which a family dynamic is held and measured against two debates: nature vs. religion and nature vs. nurture. It is not a perfect film, with obvious flaws that could have easily been fixed, including about 40 unnecessary minutes, but if you think about it in terms of “degree of difficulty,” then writer-director Terrence Malick is pretty close to a gold medal.
Millions of kids do millions of things in millions of places every day. Some of them go home for a pleasant dinner while some struggle for food. Some get hugs and others get beatings. Some swim like frogs while others blow up frogs with firecrackers. Some wake up the next day ready for an exciting lesson at school, and some don’t wake up at all. Some of us angrily ask God “Why me?” Some of us penitently ask God “What did I do wrong?” And some of us believe that bad things just randomly happen.
In mid-1950’s Texas, Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien (Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain) raise three sons – Jack, R.L., and Steve (Hunter McCraken, Laramie Eppler, and Tye Sheridan). While the Mr. and the Mrs. are genuinely doing what they believe is right for their family, they have two different styles of parenting, resulting in two different influences on their children’s upbringing. Mr. O’Brien sets strict rules and doesn’t hesitate to physically punish in ways that would not have seemed excessive to most people in the 50’s. He occasionally berates Mrs. O’Brien when she softens his punishments, but he does his best to keep that from the sons. One time, however, he was not careful enough, and it matters. Oldest son Jack, like most first borns, is treated differently than younger R.L., and their personalities and behaviors become very different. Jack often experiments with things like air rifles and electrical sockets, and R.L. usually feels the pain.
Early on in the film we learn that R.L. dies in the military at only 19. This has a prolonged effect on the older Jack (Sean Penn), haunted by nightmares and depression more than 40 years later and pushed to know what he could have done differently. We return to the 50’s where fine details of their lives are shown, including learning to walk, spying on female neighbors, and breaking windows. Mr. O’Brien naturally believes that his rules and attitudes are necessary for the boys to have the inner strength needed to succeed in a demanding world. Mrs. O’Brien, however, believes that comfort, grace, and love are more necessary.
The film alternates among three components: the everyday lives of the O’Brien’s of the 50’s, the emotional wanderings of the grown Jack as he suffers his inability to accept his brother’s death, and what is reminiscent of live-action scenes from Fantasia, in which the Earth’s history is recreated from the birth of a planet, dinosaurs, and eventually today. Seriously, 20 straight minutes of what amounts to a fabulous but unnecessary nature film in the middle of a family epic, and its only purpose is to suggest that life goes on and nature is unstoppable.
We hear a whispering monologue at various points with voices of Mr. O’Brien, Mrs. O’Brien, and Jack. They ask God where he is, why he doesn’t help when bad things happen, and for the strength to both believe and keep going despite occasional suffering. At one point, Jack’s monologue is less with God than a personal struggle, expressing anger when his father, with elbows on the table, punishes him for elbows on the table. There’s a moment when Mr. O’Brien is in a vulnerable position. Jack assesses the moment, knowing he could easily cause his father great physical harm, possibly death.
A few things bother me about The Tree of Life, and they are significant. First, Sean Penn as older, present-day Jack is a wealthy architect (I think). He does little more than pout while half asleep, which Penn does better than anyone. Because he seems unable to shake his constant depression about his brother roughly 40 years after his brother’s death, I have trouble believing he could be an immensely wealthy architect (I think). Second, the unnecessarily long montages of nature (20 minutes) and the early years of young Jack (16 minutes) one after the other. The nature montage, as previously stated, covers about 6 billion years of Earth. The other takes Jack from birth to about 13 and shows how much fun life was for boys in the 50’s. The cinematography is gorgeous, but it drains one’s attention tank. Cut them in half, and you bring the running time a little under two hours and improve the film at the same time. Third, the annoying contemplative moments with Penn wandering beaches, cliffs, fields, as he ponders the meaning of life ala Ingmar Bergman.
Malick knows how to paint a movie screen, but he doesn’t know when to stop. Sometimes “Less is More.” By today’s standards, 139 minutes is not tremendously long, but it felt much longer. I would love to watch a cut of the film, minus every moment of Sean Penn, no offense, and see how the film improves. Even with re-editing, it will not become a 4-star film, but it will definitely endear itself to a wider audience, especially those who fell asleep about 40 minutes in. The Tree of Life tries to do great things and often succeeds, but it is not for everyone.
Teacher gives it a B.