The recent winner of the Cannes Film Festival’s top prize, the prestigious Palme D’Or, came as a shock to many, considering the reported mix of boos and applause at the movie’s first festival screening (as reported here by The Wrap.) And that kind of reaction to director Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life” isn’t limited to the theatres of the South of France. We have two very different reviews below – two different branches of the tree, so to speak – from myself and Jonathan Ratliff. But first, here’s what you need to know about the movie.
Brad Pitt and newcomer Jessica Chastain – who we’ll be seeing a lot of in 2011 with movies including “The Help,” “The Debt,” “Take Shelter” and “Coriolanus” all slated for release – star as husband and wife (Mr. & Mrs. O’Brien, as we never know their first names) in this drama set mainly in the 1950s. We see their family grow to include three boys, Mr. O’Brien’s success as an inventor and the family’s personal drama brought on by clashing personalities – Mr. O’Brien quite stern as the disciplinarian, requiring his sons to say “sir;” Mrs. O’Brien the loving, nurturing, “fun” parent.
The differences in their parenting styles are obvious when you compare these two scenes from the movie.
Here, Mr. O’Brien is trying to teach his two oldest sons how to throw a punch and defend themselves.
But in this second scene, Mr. O’Brien is away on a business trip, and the boys take full advantage of the opportunity for fun, taunting and teasing their mother with a lizard they caught.
Much of the movie is scenes just like these, moments in time – gardening, dinner, bath time, etc. – capturing a full picture of the O’Brien familiy. There is no “traditional” story structure, or seemingly, even a script, though there of course was. Most of our time is spent following the oldest son, Jack, portrayed by newcomer Hunter McCracken. We see him as a newborn, becoming an older brother, his developing personality, his curiosity about life, his increasingly complicated relationship with his father into his pre-teen years, his temptation with rebellion, his attachment to his mother. On Two Ways Through Life, a companion site to the movie’s official online location, the story is divided between “The Father’s Way” and “The Mother’s Way,” illustrating further some of the differences from Jack’s perspective.
Years later, we see an old Jack, portrayed by Sean Penn. Now a successful architect, he is lost in his own emotional and mental turmoil (for reasons that can’t be revealed here without spoiling a portion of the story). “The Tree of Life” is told from this, the older Jack’s, perspective – everything else a flashback and narrative explaining how he ended up where he is. Saying very little, the intent is that the character ponders some of the basic, fundamental questions about life – birth, death, our purpose, faith.
All of this has created one of the most talked about and debated movies of the year. Whether it’s a discussion of how the film has affected one person versus another or how specific scenes and images are interpreted. And certainly critics have a lot to say about it, as we do at The Seven Sees. In honor of a movie that can generate so many opinions, we offer you two distinct view points of “The Tree of Life.”
by JONATHAN RATLIFF
Looking back to Cannes, the reported mixed reaction to “The Tree of Life” of boos and applause should have been a sign. Since then, the complete polar responses to the movie have mirrored that original night in southern France and, more interestingly, even within a single person’s reaction. I just read one critic’s review who single handedly described the movie with opposing adjectives. It’s no disrespect to the critic, who I highly admire, it’s that she proved my theory that “The Tree of Life” tries way too hard to create this feeling of thought-provoking importance.
My experience with this movie has even been a sort of back-and-forth. Walking into the theater to watch the film I had already been exposed to its reputation, good and bad. I was worried. I didn’t want to judge too soon, but could feel myself getting on my high horse about being told the film was “art” or a “poem.” It didn’t help matters when I was handed notes on the movie which began with phrases like “…’The Tree of Life’ is a hymn to life, excavating answers to the most haunting and personal human questions through a kaleidoscope of the intimate and the cosmic…” Oy vey. I am all about great, deep, artistic films that make me think, argue, get emotional in some way, but I was not sure looking through a ‘kaleidoscope of the intimate and the cosmic’ was going to keep me from literally rolling my eyes. Even in the hands of talented filmmakers and actors. I took a moment to clear my head and open my mind, shoving the notes under my seat so I could make sure “The Tree of Life” had a fair chance of affecting me in whatever way it might.
The movie is perfection…for about 45 minutes straight and in sporadic places thereafter. The intimate scenes between the family, with limited and sometimes no dialogue at all, tell us enough about this family that if they had spoken it could have ruined it. The actors are incredible and, in fact, are throughout the entire film. Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain are just about perfect in everything they do in this movie.
The “cosmic” part of it all even plays a role that, described on paper may seem over-the-top, but visually is beautiful and emotionally moving. The two combined take you into the mindset that, especially during a time of loss, there are greater forces at work.
Unfortunately, the movie continues. While the family scenes remained just as dynamic throughout, scenes set in the future with the eldest son, Jack (Sean Penn), are lackluster. You know he’s still dealing with the loss of his brother and possibly the “meaning of life,” but it’s not pieced together in a way that you get on board with his grief and internal struggle. Had director Terrence Malick just stuck with the parents dealing with losing a son and coming to terms, the movie would have been stronger.
Now, some will argue that the vast amount of celestial imagery, visions of the creation of life, and quiet whispers of dialogue underneath keep this idea of grand design and spirituality going and even necessary. Welcomed self-indulgence, if you will. It’s that last description that creates the biggest polar opposition to this film for me. I think too much of this makes the movie too heavy. Yes, I’m more simple-minded than many who have watched this movie. But cleansing this film of just some of this sweeping, artistic, faith exploring footage would have made a huge difference. We get it. The characters are suffering and trying to get perspective on life. We get it.
The last part of the movie had me squirming in my seat because of the “indulgence” issue. When it finally ended I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to feel. Not just in my own heart and mind, but for these characters. It was muddy, confusing and a bit of a let down. And keeping with the on-going theme this film has created, a woman behind me says out loud, “Amen.” She had an experience. I whispered that word to myself in relief that it was over.
For a movie that is difficult to describe in few words, I wanted to find some way to capture the experience and it came to me. “The Tree of Life” is like that big piece of chocolate cake that everyone says you must try. They talk it up so much that you know it’s good, you know it’s indulgent, and you must try it for yourself. The first few bites are amazing. The chocolate hits just the right taste buds and you are in heaven. But then you don’t stop and take it one bite too many. That’s when your stomach feels bloated, and what started out as euphoric now just feels like too much. This movie is just one bite of chocolate cake too many for me. It’s incredible in its scope and design, but it just needed a little less here and there to make it perfect.
by GERRAD HALL
As mentioned in the description above, most of the movie is seen through moments in time. Now, that’s not necessarily unique for a movie – scenes often take place around the dinner table or while driving in a car. But traditionally, there is very scripted dialog the actors are delivering. But in “The Tree of Life,” these moments almost seem improvised – they are so natural that I felt like I was truly watching a real family. And that is a great testament to Pitt, Chastain and the young actors portraying their children. Sometimes the characters speak – offering a glimpse into varying parenting styles or personalities or a child’s frustration with authority – but often, they are silent, their emotions told through facial expressions and body language. Yet, those moments are just as revealing as ones with narrative. Malick incorporates the original score of composer Alexandre Desplat (four-time Oscar® nominee for movies including “The King’s Speech,” “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,”) with classical and contemporary music –35 pieces total from composers including Bach, Mozart, Hector Berlioz and Hanan Townshed – to fill in those “quiet” moments. We feel tension, heartbreak, joy, suspense and so much more through big, dramatic musical selections, other times just a solo instrument.
Visually, “The Tree of Life” is spectacular. The word “artsy” will get attached to this movie in a lot of reviews and descriptions. And in many ways it is true, but maybe none more so than in its sheer beauty. Like many Discovery or National Geographic or Disney Nature adventures, the photography of nature and life is top notch. Images of a field of sunflowers are some of the most stunning I have ever seen. I felt my eyes get bigger in awe of the imagery and photography.
To expand more on the actors, this is a very interesting role for Brad Pitt. Aside from “Babel,” I can’t really recall a character of his set so intimately in the family environment. So much of his performance is in reaction. Often, actors talk about the challenge and joy of just getting to react to situations and fellow actors. This movie seems like a master class in that. Through the birth of his three sons emerges a different man than who we started with, one filled with obligation, duty, responsibility, discipline and pride. It’s something he wants to engrain in his sons, but they aren’t always so receptive to his methods. At one point, his anger gets the best of him, something the oldest son, Jack, holds against him.
The beautiful and expressive Jessica Chastain is pure perfection as Mrs. O’Briend. Chastain embodies all of the motherly pride and love she can muster. This character fits the mold of traditional ‘50s housewife – takes care of the kids, cleans the house, does laundry, makes dinner. It’s a role in which she seems very content and satisfied … a wife and mother. She is incredibly nurturing, and also very forgiving, almost to a fault. As with Pitt, Chastain has to wear her character on her sleeve, and does so with a refinement and grace that easily could’ve been overdone.
As for the young actors – Hunter McCracken, Laramie Eppler and Tye Sheridan – none had any professional acting experience. But what they do have to their credit is their natural abilities and looks. They all were just fine in their respective roles, especially the oldest, Hunter, playing Jack. He is fantastic in this heavily featured and complex role.
Playing the older Jack, Sean Penn has some of the more interesting, for lack of better word, moments. Penn has very few lines, most of his time spent in emotional anguish, reflecting on his childhood, his parents, and a personal tragedy … trying to make sense of it all. We often hear his voice whispering to his mother and brother. It’s a big odd. And suddenly, Jack is walking through a rocky, desert-like landscape, searching for something…anything, it seems. I found myself wanting more from this character and this part of the story, something not so mysterious and psychological. It was a bit disappointing, even confusing in its own way.
“The Tree of Life” – in addressing its questions about life and death, our beginning, our connection to earth, the spiritual aspects of our being – can easily be interpreted as pretentious. It goes to some strange places, intertwining previously described scenes with those of outer space, the creation of Earth, a time when dinosaurs roamed the land, underwater shots of waves crashing. As much as I appreciated the symbolism, there did come a point where I thought, “Yeah, I got it, let’s move on.”
I like “The Tree of Life.” I get it, I appreciate how it made me think and feel, and I have great respect for the performances. I don’t know, though, that I would be able to sit through it again just yet. Once is enough for now. The movie will most certainly elicit a different response from each audience member. Though I won’t go so far as to call “The Tree of Life” a masterpiece, it does remind me of a piece of abstract art – you can physically see what the artist created, there is an obvious inspiration and motivation. But ultimately, the viewer is free to his or her own interpretation and take-away. Nearly a week now after seeing the movie, it still has me thinking.
That, I suppose, is my take-away.