December 7, 2011 -- Director Terrence Malick's doesn't make films very often, but when he does, all serious movie lovers take notice and flock to the theaters to absorb the latest cinematic wonder, the way they used to when Stanley Kubrick was making movies. If you happen to watch a Malick film like “The Tree of Life” or “The New World,” you'll understand why. He has a way with images, a way with camera shots unlike anyone else. There is great beauty in his films.
In the most ambitious film I've seen since “The Fountain,” Malick has taken on the vast realm of the universe, afterlife, and morality in modern America with awe-inspiring sweeping images, sounds and emotions. His film encompasses the vastness of time and space, but it also scales down to a very personal story about a single American family. What Malick has created is the complete opposite of such recent depressing, defeatist, uninspiring films as “We Need to Talk About Kevin” or “Melancholia.” In those films, pessimism and evil prevail. “The Tree of Life” is an inspiring film about the battle between a message of love, charity, forgiveness, and that of social Darwinism, the law of the jungle, where the strong prosper and the weak starve.
The film opens with a lovely house in suburbia. A woman, Mrs. O'Brien (played by Jessica Chastain) opens a telegram, presumably telling her that her son, R.L., has died in the Vietnam war at the age of 19. Both Mr. (Brad Pitt of “Moneyball”) and Mrs. O'Brien grieve at the news. Their oldest son, Jack (Sean Penn of “Milk”) also mourns, and thinks back to time he (Hunter McCracken plays Jack as a boy), R.L. (Laramie Eppler) and the youngest brother Steve (Tye Sheridan) all were young boys growing up in Texas.
While there are many astonishing images in this film, ranging from the creation of worlds, the time of the dinosaurs, a giant asteroid hitting the earth, and other collosal events, the heart of the film takes place in the 1950s in Waco, Texas. The film revolves around the conflict of grace versus nature. Mrs. O'Brien represents grace, love, charity, forgiveness, the universal brotherhood of all people, the ideas championed by Jesus Christ, Buddha, Francis of Assisi and many other mystics of the past and present. Mr. O'Brien represents nature, the law of the jungle, cutthroat competition, whatever it takes to get ahead, those qualities championed by Ayn Rand, John D. Rockefeller, J. Paul Getty, Michael Milken, Bernie Madoff and the other “robber barons” of the past and present.
These two competing ideas, selflessness and charity versus selfishness and materialism, are at the center of a great social struggle now happening in the United States. As the older Jack puts it in the movie, people are “too selfish” these days. He looks at the towering buildings around him in Houston with the rich power brokers (the kind of people who get government bailouts when they fail) on top and many more people on the bottom (the people who don't get bailouts), he feels isolated, separate, alone. On the other side of this divide is the cult of individualism where there is no kinship to one's fellow human beings, no responsibility to them, only to one's own comfort and the increasing accumulation of wealth. Jack finds that life empty. He longs for the grace his mother taught him.
This struggle between nature and grace is intense in the O'Brien household in the 1950s. Mr. O'Brien is a strict disciplinarian. He teaches his sons to fight with their fists and to be ruthless about it. He tells them the world is full of trickery and you can't win at the game of life if you are “too good.” Mrs. O'Brien tells her children there is no point in living at all if you don't love people. While Mr. O'Brien is a harsh critic and taskmaster, Mrs. O'Brien provides compassion and unconditional love. This leads to fights. The husband accuses his wife of undermining his teachings. Jack finds that he is more like his father than his mother, but he, like his father, eventually realizes that the way of grace is his only salvation. The way of nature turns out to be a path to pain and emptiness.
This struggle is eventually resolved. In the end there is a stunning vision of the afterlife in which all the O'Brien family and others are reunited as they were at different times of their lives on the shore of a vast ocean. Water and trees seem to symbolize life in the film. There are also stars, planets, galaxies, volcanoes, blood vessels, cells and just about everything in between from the smallest cells to the largest things in the universe. Montages of these images form the transition between different periods of the story in the film.
I'm not sure all these elements really hang together all that well to make a complete whole, but I am giving this film extra credit for being so incredibly ambitious, visually stunning and humane. This is such a refreshing, positive view of people after all that crap I had to sit through in other recent films that show the worst of humanity. While “Melancholia” illustrates a very tiny, medieval vision of the universe, “The Tree of Life” shows us an expansive, modern view of the universe with vast, unlimited possibilities. This film rates an A.
Click here for links to places to buy or rent this movie in digital formats, or to buy the soundtrack, posters, books, even used videos, games, electronics and lots of other stuff. I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.