How do you even begin to describe a film like Tree of Life? Words such as “art-house film,” “sweeping,” and “transcendent” are accurate, but misleading in their connotation. Typically they evoke the image of a self-important, storyless mess, mired in ambiguity and bereft of substance.
In its defense, the tone is humble. The story is of a son recalling childhood memories of his father and reconciling the differences between them. The clarity is in the simplicity and beauty of its scenes. And the substance is in the detailed moments it creates to evoke our own similar experiences.
With an opening shot of the universe itself, director Terence Malick (Badlands, The Thin Red Line) implies mammoth importance, but he avoids pretension by never forcing a message. This shot and others show an awe and respect (to say nothing of their magnificence) for the subject matter that ask us to appreciate rather than tell us what to think.
Similarly, Tree of Life has a message, but it doesn’t preclude the audience from appreciating its scenes on their own terms. A small sequence accompanied by Gorecki’s Symphony number 3 had a very deep impact on me. Other audience members laughed and were then were quiet when one of the boys tries to accompany his father on the guitar.
Shown are a series of moments, superficially taken from the childhood of Jack O’Brien (Sean Penn as the elder Jack, Hunter McCracken as the child) but moments representative of all our formative years. Some we share, some we don’t. There are summer nights when we played past bedtime with our friends; attended church or were spanked.
The details of these moments in Jack’s life are specific to the individual, but the experience itself is not unique. Each one invites us to recollect similar moments, and yet together they form a narrative that is both simple and yet meticulously constructed; linear yet simultaneously within a stream of consciousness. There’s a progression in both the story of childhood (and the whole of existence itself), but also as each feeling feeds into the next.
The film requires some willingness and patience from its audience, and even then it feels slightly overlong. But the experience is ultimately rewarding. Pitt and Penn’s celebrity does not overshadow their performances (especially Pitt, who embodies his role as the stern, senior O’Brien so effectively that he’s nearly unrecognizable). Jessica Chastain plays a strong counterpoint of forgiveness to Pitt, and McCracken is such a natural that I fear his strengths may be overlooked.
It’s not a conventional film; the best way to approach it is as a fugue, variations that all share a common theme. And that I think is Malick’s message: We’re all connected, whether we spring from a single ancestor or inhabit a common universe; embody the traits of our parents or fight against them; share similar experiences… However vast this world may be, however dense, there are strings, both great and small, that unite us. It is a simple message, softly spoken.