The Tree of Life is a film more expansive than director Terrence Malick‘s previous work. A quote from the Book of Job. A nebulous entity with an adult Jack O’Brien’s (Sean Penn) voice. The O’Briens losing their 19-year-old middle son R.L. to an unnamed war. Jack’s voice accompanying fast, neon lights. Urbanite Jack living his architect life, having a tense phone conversation with his father, lighting a candle to commemorate his brother’s death. Jack and his mother’s (Jessica Chastain) voices on a quest for answers as we see the world’s biological prehistory. Short moments of Jack’s mother as a child. Jack’s mother becoming Mrs. O’Brien because of a dashing man in a white navy uniform (Brad Pitt) and starting a family in Waco, Texas. Giving birth and being there as Jack, as a toddler, learns and experiences things for the first time.
I do stand by one thing about this movie – Jack’s father is an asshole, for some reason the scenes that feature him having more personal importance than others. Given the film’s length, it’s generous enough to show its audience a diverse set of moments including Mr. O’Brien’s, starting us off with his seemingly innocent sternness. But he inadvertently indoctrinates them in this world of machismo and class angst, strangely enough since it looks like they have nothing to complain about property-wise. The film also uses one scene for its audience to distrust and hate that character, to show that his relationship with his family might never be mended, despite keeping up appearances.
Mr. O’Brien is a monster but thanks to Pitt building a great character, he is not a violent caricature. Eventually, young Jack’s (Hunter McCracken) anger towards his father surfaces, and the latter’s reactions vary. It’s his human moments that make Mr. O’Brien more fearsome. We see Jack’s father through his eldest son’s flashbacks, a strong balance of a detailed, mature understanding and a childlike/adolescent fear. It’s more difficult for someone to be hurt a few times by someone who they love, knowing that a person is inseparable from the ones who cause them pain.
Mr. O’Brien isn’t the only character subjected through this impressionistic depiction. Mrs. O’Brien, her disgusted face at her mother(-in-law?)’s (Fiona Shaw) terrible advice showing us that she would blossom more if she was born ten years later and/or read Simone de Beauvoir. To her sons, she’s a playmate, and especially to Jack, she’s a teacher, an inadvertent target of Freudian tension, disciplinarian, a Saint Veronica and a terrible cook. Or young, cherubic R.L. (Laramie Eppler), trusting of Jack and doesn’t treat his older brother as a competitor. The two, with the neighourhood boys, play like they want to win Darwin Awards. They add subtle humour to the film’s spiritual and philosophical film, mixed with both a childhood and an inarticulate yet poetically working-class experience.
This voluminous film turns its audience into lucid viewers, observant of its every detail as well as making us ask why Jack doesn’t talk to his wife or father about these issues, why in such a big house would the three sons room together or why the youngest son is treated like a prop. Devoid of obvious musical cues or other director tricks, these stories are intertwined, devastating moments seamlessly mixed in with more idyllic ones, letting its audience judge what Jack’s life and inner thoughts are like, if the part about the world’s biological prehistory influences the way we look at the O’Briens as they love and hurt each other, and if the ending provides closure or not. 4.5/5
- Review: The Tree of Life (thestar.com)