Director Terrence Malick's "The Tree of Life" is not for the casual moviegoer. In fact, a group of giggly young women in the row in front of me walked out about a third of the way through the movie (to my relief, as they were very annoying). If you see this movie, which I recommend you do, be prepared for something you've probably never seen before. Its been advertised as a kind of dramatic version of "The Wonder Years," but its really more along the lines of Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey" and Aronofsky's "The Fountain." Both of which are superior films. Despite its flaws, which I will describe in detail, "The Tree of Life" should be praised overall for its technical achievement and the risk that Malick took in spending the last 10 years making this unique film. In an age of "Transformers" sequels and "Mr. Popper's Penguins," it is incredibly refreshing to see a risky film like this get made at all, let alone have a fairly wide-release.
As you will probably read in any positive review of this film, the scope and visuals are breathtaking. Malick seems to go out of his way not to include any shots with traditional visual composition, which can often be disconcerting, but it certainly keeps every moment of the film interesting. The "2001-esque" portions of the film are extremely well-done. They exist to bring the scope of the film out so that it is really about all of life, rather than simply one family. It is forcing the viewer to accept the relationships between the characters as symbols for the relationships between every person and his or her family. When the film zooms-in to the story of the O'Brien family (no relation to yours truly), it actually becomes fairly claustrophobic at points. You are so physically close to these characters that you cannot help but feel what they are feeling, whether it be joy, anger, or fear (more often the latter two). This is also a testament to the superb acting of Brad Pitt as the father, Jessica Chastain as the mother, and Hunter McCracken as the eldest son, Jack, as well as the constant and beautifully dramatic score. The visual style, acting, and score all work together to make individual moments that would usually seem commonplace to be extraordinary and tense. It seems that the viewer is supposed to expect that anything can happen at any time, which seems appropriate since the story is mostly told from the POV of the the child (Jack) and children are supposed to see the world as a surprising place where anything is possible.
Despite all of these extremely positive aspects, I couldn't help but walk away from the film somewhat disappointed. My first thought was that it was incomplete. The plot was so abstract that details were unnecessarily left to the viewer's imagination. It is often a good thing when filmmakers trust the audience's intelligence enough not to spell out every single detail, but there is such a thing as being too abstruse. Some casual moviegoers may say that criticism applies to "2001" as well, but the visuals tell that story far more directly than they do in "The Tree of Life" and it had much more sound structure. The structure of "The Tree of Life" is so frenetic for the first half that the audience can't sink their teeth into any plot details that the director is trying to convey. (Granted, I may have missed some key details in the beginning narration due to the infuriating girls in front of me). Now, a film can work well without much concrete plot, but then it must have outstanding characterization. I hesitate to say that the characterization in this film is poor. It is not. I'd say that it is adequate on average. Some characters are very well fleshed out, such as the Father and young Jack (though I can't really say the same for adult Jack, as played by Sean Penn, as he gets very little screen-time so its difficult for the audience to really connect his character to the younger version). Others are fleshed out just enough for the audience to empathize, such as the stereotypically passive and loving Mother. However, I really wanted to know more about the younger brother. His only real characterization was that he trusts Jack and that he's fairly passive like his mother, as opposed to Jack being aggressive like his father. We absolutely get a full picture of how the boys relate to each other, but the younger brother just isn't a full character on his own. (IMDb says there was a third child. If there was, I don't remember anything about him. That's not a good thing.) If viewed as primarily a story about a boy and his father, then this works fine, but it really presents itself as a film about a family from the point of view of one son. As such, there should be a natural focus on that son, but it should flesh out every other member of the family to get a full picture.
I highly recommend that anybody interested in the mechanics of great film-making see "The Tree of Life," both because of its ambition, scope, technical achievement, and acting, as well as the flaws of being an inherently incomplete film with an abstruse plot, frenetic structure, and uneven characterization. We can all appreciate what it does very well and we can learn from what it does poorly. And despite its flaws, the thoughtful viewer does come away deeply affected by this film. Its like a poem that doesn't mean anything literally but successfully hits the reader's emotional core for reasons beyond rational understanding. In all, it was a very risky film to make and I truly believe lovers of film should reward risk-taking above all... or else we will get nothing but Mr. Popper's Penguins and sequels to Transformers from now on.
What did you think? Leave a comment and let me know what you thought of The Tree of Life.