Visually Striking ‘Tree of Life’ Lacks Focus
Terence Malick’s The Tree of Life is a beautiful look at life, growing up, and well, anything else they can cram into its lengthy 2 hour and 18 minute run-time. The movie is filmed gorgeously taking long looks at nature in a similar manner to Planet Earth. The actors are always in perfect lighting as the camera swims behind them or playfully joins the horsing around of the children. The cinematography is one of the the best things about The Tree of Life, since the plot is only sometimes interesting.
The plot can be divided into four sections. The first showcases the family’s reaction to the brother’s death. It effectively sets the tone of the film while introducing us to the characters, most notably the parents played Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain.
The second is far less effective as Malick takes the stage away from the main characters and looks at the formation of the Earth as well as the start of life. The film feels very pretentious here as it tries to say something small with something big. The dinosaur sequence reminded me of the prehistoric human sequence in the beginning of 2001: A Space Odyssey, however unlike 2001, Tree of Life does not try to make it apply to the main characters, it just makes you think about something that by the end of the movie does not matter.
The third section, and the bulk of the movie, focuses on the childhood of the three brothers and how they grew up under their parents. This is by far the best part of the film. Brad Pitt gives an incredible performance as the father you hate most of the time, and love a little of the time. It really is one of the best performances of his career. Jessica Chastain is also great as the sympathetic mother. The kids go through various obstacles as they grow up that every viewer should be able to relate to. If the whole movie was this, it would have been a masterpiece.
The finale is fittingly ambiguous. The strange array of emotions I felt watching the ending leaves me feeling that on a second viewing, the whole movie will grow on me. On a side note, why was Sean Penn in this movie? He just seems overqualified for his small (although important) role. He is not bad, it just seems like Malick may have gotten an Oscar winner like Penn just to sell more tickets.
Tree of Life never stops being beautiful, however the multitude of messages it is trying to get across are too unrelated to seem as if you are only watching one movie. It is too big and too ambitious. The smaller scenes that concentrate on the family are what work the best here as great performances carry the beauty to a new level of art. It is just a shame that that is only half of the film. *** (out of four)