Best Picture Nominee: The Tree of Life

Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life is a bizarre movie that centers on a family in the 1950s. It divided critics and is not for everyone.

In my quest to review all the movies nominated for Best Picture this year I decided to watch The Tree of Life at home on VOD. I have seen a few more movies since then, but I have been stuck on how to review The Tree of Life. I actually watched it a second time just to try and figure out what was going on.

The movie has fiercely divided critics this year as it was either loved or hated. After winning the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival it started getting mixed reviews and didn’t look likely to be nominated for Best Picture, but toward the end of the year it started picking up a few critics’ awards and managed to land a nomination for Best Picture, Best Director for Terrence Malick, and Best Cinematography. 

The Tree of Life is an ambitious movie that tries to encompass all of life starting at the big bang through the afterlife. The movie centers on the O'Brien family in a small town during the 1950's. The family consists of the mother and father (Jessica Chastain and Brad Pitt) who are nameless through the whole movie and their three sons.

The movie is mostly about the oldest boy Jack (Hunter McCracken) as he is at the age when he is beginning to transition from boy to man. As he gets glimpses into the adult world he struggles with the big questions of life. Specifically, the struggle between spirituality and self-preservation. This is summed up in one of the early voice overs in the movie where the mother says “…there are two ways through life- the way of nature and the way of grace. You have to choose which one you’ll follow.” Each side is personified by his mother and father. The mother is the spiritual teacher who teaches them “grace doesn’t try to please itself. Accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked. It accepts insults and injuries.’” On the other hand, the father is the practical teacher that tells him to do whatever it takes to get ahead. An example of this is when he tells his sons "the world lives by trickery if you want to succeed you can’t be too good."

What I just described is the middle 75 minutes of the movie. The movie opens with whispers talking to God. Then it goes all the way back to the big bang and we watch evolution from tiny organisms to the dinosaurs. After the meteor that wipes them out we are transported to the 1950s. Then at the end and older Jack O’Brien (Sean Penn) is seen contemplating his life then we see him in heaven with the rest of his family and friends. 

It is the middle 75 minutes that I really liked. It was the most interesting and thought provoking part. Hunter McCracken does a great job as a teenager struggling with growing up. For all the talk that Jessica Chastain and Brad Pitt got about their acting, I think it was McCracken that stole the movie. I don’t think Chastain or Pitt added much to the movie. The beginning and end are what drags the movie down. Sitting through the first 45 minutes of whispering and science channel like visuals I was beginning to wonder if there was any kind of plot. I still do not know why there are dinosaurs in a movie about the 1950s. The whole afterlife scenes make even less sense. In fact, if I didn’t read previously that part of the movie was in heaven I might not have known thats what it was.

Sean Penn’s role seemed pointless and I found a quote where he seems to agree. He told a French newspaper “I didn’t at all find on the screen the emotion of the script…a clearer and more conventional narrative would have helped the film… I’m still trying to figure out what I’m doing there and what I was supposed to add in that context.”

My recommendation: If you like artsy experimental impressionist films then check it out. It is unconventional non-linear storytelling that is not for everyone. If you watch the trailer you get a good idea of how half the movie is, just snippets of scenes. The closest film to compare it too is 2001: A Space Odyssey which like this one starts in the past and goes to the afterlife with very little dialogue.

If you watch it, make sure you do it with the subtitles on because you can barely hear any of the whispering which is important to get the full meaning of the movie. There is a good movie in there but its only 75 minutes worth in a movie that is 139 minutes long. The movie is beautifully filmed and will most likely win Best Cinematography but it is too odd and bizarre to win anything else. 

An odd bit of trivia both Jessica Chastain and Brad Pitt got nominated for an Oscar this year but for different movies. Brad Pitt is nominated for Best Actor for Moneyball and Jessica Chastain is nominated for Best Supporting Actress for The Help (all three movies are nominated for Best Picture). 

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Jacob Crawford February 10, 2012 at 04:22 PM
Just some thoughts on the connection between the family drama and the heavy visuals of the film: The two distinct portions of the film come together in that both mean to show how we came to be. The latter does so on a much larger scale, showing quite literally the miracle of life, while the former aims to show how our development makes us into the people we are as adults, which would then effect subsequent generations. The two are certainly more connected than even that, though as we are meant to realize that every event, from the dawn of life on Earth (and perhaps before) has had an impact (though it may be minute) on the lives we live and who we eventually become. Chastain and Pitt have their own ways of raising their three, onscreen sons and this parental duel ultimately creates the man we see in the presumably present scenes featuring Sean Penn ("Mother. Father. Always you wrestle inside me.") He doesn't become either one of them, in which case life could be described as more of a circle. He is from them, but not them; a branch moving in a direction away from them, but still wholly connected and even further down resides the whole of the tree - the rest of humanity and existence.


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