“There are two ways through life: the way of nature, and the way of Grace. You have to choose which one you’ll follow.” A soft nurturing voice starts off Terrence Malick’s amazing new film, “The Tree of Life.” This is an ambitious and stunning cinematic work of art. It has already won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. The French like it. However, this film is not for everybody. It doesn’t follow a traditional plot line. Regardless, filmgoers that are patient and open-minded will be rewarded with an unforgettable movie experience.
The setting of the film is a small-town in Texas in the 1950s. This is the post-World War II baby boom generation when families moved to the suburbs in pursuit of the American Dream. Malick exquisitely shows us a more innocent time. Undoubtedly, he is recalling his own idyllic childhood memories. These childhood scenes of growing up are brilliant and so palpable. You can almost smell the green grass on the family’s tree-lined street. It reminds us of the joys we had playing around the neighborhood on a warm summer day. The simple pleasures like taking a sip of water from a garden hose or rolling down a grassy knoll with innocent abandon.
The nuclear family consists of Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt), a strict disciplinarian who represents nature’s survival of the fittest outlook. His lovely wife (Jessica Chastain) embodies grace through her unconditional love and tenderness for her family. The O’Brien boys include eldest son, Jack O’brien (Hunter McCracken), R.L. (Laramie Eppler), and Steve (Tye Sheridan). The film is revealed through the memories of middle-aged Jack (Sean Penn), who is a successful architect. Many of his scenes are set in a modern glass and steel office building. It dramatically sets the tone for Jack’s quest for meaning. Penn’s performance is haunting and he does it expertly with little dialogue. This is the true sign of a gifted actor.
The film ponders some heavy questions. The screen displays a flickering flame. Does this represent the creator of the universe? Malick takes us on a cosmic journey through space and time. From the picturesque 1950s suburbia, we are thrust into outer space where we witness the Big Bang and the gradual creation of life on Earth. The cinematography is spectacular thanks to the talents of Emmanuel Lubezki. You can just tell that he understands Malick’s vision. The images flow with a powerful classical music score including Couperin, Brahms, and Berlioz’ Requiem. It’s simply mesmerizing.
The best performance of the film is Brad Pitt’s Mr. O’brien. This is an Oscar worthy effort. He’s that good. I honestly never realized how versatile Pitt can be when he wants to. He isn’t just playing the role; he embodies it down to the 1950s crew cut hair style. Two other notable performances go to newcomers Jessica Chastain and Hunter McCracken (the little boy has the coolest name). Chastain is a Juilliard trained actress. Mark my words; you will start seeing more of this talented actress.
‘The Tree of Life’ is anything but a conventional story. Malick takes plenty of risks and for that reason, it explores existential questions. It makes you think about important themes. There are moments in the film where the characters whisper the question to God, “What are we to you?” What is our place in the universe? Malick’s message is, “We’re all connected.” It is a must-see for cinephiles. Check out the official trailer https://youtu.be/RrAz1YLh8nY