The fifth film in four decades from iconoclast director Terrence Malick, 'The Tree of Life' has critics split and audiences struggling to know what to make of the art-house epic. If it won the Palme d'Or at Cannes, why did some boo it at the premiere? And if the movie's about a young boy growing up in suburban Texas, how do dinosaurs and the Big Bang fit in?
And while it would take more than the words allotted here to unpack all of Malick's metaphysical musings on the nature of man and the universe, we'll do our best to run down what you should expect from the notoriously hard-to-pin-down director's 139-minute visual poem.
What Is 'The Tree of Life' About?
From the duality of man to the birth and death of the universe, the better question might be what isn't 'The Tree of Life' about? But at least on its face, 'The Tree of Life' is about a suburban Texas family and their three young boys growing in the 1950s, and yes, a brief interlude on the 13 some odd billion years that came before that.
Brad Pitt and newcomer Jessica Chastain star as Mr. and Mrs. O'Brien, two parents with starkly different approaches to childrearing. Complex but emotionally distant, Mr. O'Brien is a stern authoritarian who wants to toughen up his boys to prepare them to face what he sees as an unforgiving world. Mrs. O'Brien, however, prefers a more graceful approach, showering the children with love and compassion even when it isn't returned. We first meet our protagonist as a grown man (played by Sean Penn), but Jack spends the majority of the film as a young boy (where he's played by Hunter McCracken).
But before we get to Jack's childhood years, we first learn that one of his younger brothers dies tragically at the age of 19, before Malick takes us all the way back to the very beginning: the formation of the universe. The resulting montage of celestial images set to classical music crisscrosses epochs and their various highlights, from protostars to mitosis to those aforementioned (and remarkably sensitive) dinosaurs.
After the birth of the universe, the film moves to the birth of our main character, through to his eventual loss of innocence, the end of childhood, and eventually the end of the universe and back. Not bad for under two-and-a-half hours.
OK, But What Is the Movie Really "About"?
'The Tree of Life' has been drawing comparisons to Stanley Kubrick's '2001: A Space Odyssey' for its ambitiously epic scope as much as its beautiful-but-sometimes-confounding imagery. Yes, there are characters in Malick's opus, a pall of tragedy and its aftermath years later, but beyond the central coming-of-age story, Malick is consumed with everything from the question of God and why bad things happen to good people to the glory of nature and modern disillusionment.
But despite the film's drifting impressionistic nature, 'The Tree of Life' is fairly explicit about its themes -- hell, the characters all but spell them out during half-whispered voiceovers. Young Jack questions God, along with his father's parenting skills, before eventually realizing (and relaying to us in the audience) that his father and mother and their competing ideologies will forever wrestle inside him. Chastain's character, meanwhile, delivers the movie's central premise in an opening monologue about the two opposing ways through life: brute nature and spiritual grace.
Some may find it difficult to see the connection between the trials of a 1950s Texas family and the Big Bang, but at its core, 'The Tree of Life' is about the nature of the universe -- on both a macro and micro level. While the director's focus may wander at times (Malick's signature as a filmmaker), the film's central concern is with the constant and competing tension between violence and grace, in nature, the universe and in ourselves. But either way, yeah, the pensive CGI dinosaurs might be a bit much.