Far be it for me to contradict the Cannes Film Festival jury, or some critics who saw The Tree of Life there and sang its praises to the skies, but I respectfully disagree. I would never dismiss the film out of hand—it has too many beautiful passages, conveying the conflicting emotions of childhood—but I think its reach exceeds its grasp. One can applaud Terrence Malick for attempting something as bold as a picture that ruminates on the place of mankind in nature and the history of the universe. But even an ambitious artist has to be judged on results, not intentions. I couldn’t connect the “big bang,” or the interaction of dinosaurs, with the life of a family in 1950s Texas, and frankly, I found the shots of protozoa, flowing water, and the cosmos itself to be beautiful but—
Even if one could forgive those artsy moments as a fleeting indulgence, I thought the present-day scenes of a contemplative Sean Penn, who appears all too briefly as one of Brad Pitt’s boys grown up, were ineffectual. We are meant to feel his unease in the modern world, and relate that to his difficult upbringing, but I felt disconnected from this mostly-silent character.
The Tree of Life is truly a film in which the parts are greater than the whole. The depiction of small-town life in the mid-20th century is superb, especially as shot by Emmanuel Lubezki. We witness the emotional journey of a boy from infancy to youth, from being the sole object of his mother’s loving attention to sharing her with two brothers, and his subsequent growing pains. This involves boyhood adventures, moments of curiosity, discovery, guilt and pain—all of it vividly conveyed through the intimacy of the camera with our young protagonist (Hunter McCracken).
He also has to contend with a stern, loving, often quixotic father (Pitt), who demands a great deal but rarely (if ever) says a word to his wife, played with ethereal grace by relative screen newcomer Jessica Chastain.
It is rare to see naked emotions portrayed so vividly, especially in an American film, but the qualities captured in those moments are diluted, not enhanced, by Malick’s attempt to relate them to an earthly continuum.
If you’re a discerning and adventurous filmgoer I would encourage you to see The Tree of Life because the family story is quite moving. But you must know, going in, that you may or may not respond to the movie as a whole.