The Tree of Life (2011)
84th Academy Awards 2012
Nominated for 3 awards.
Nominated for Best Picture (Sarah Green, Bill Pohlad, Dede Gardner, Grant Hill), Cinematography (Emmanuel Lubezki), and Directing (Terrence Malick).
Watched September 15, 2012.
The Tree of Life is not for the faint of heart or the average moviegoer. Even movie buffs will find it a difficult film to interpret and connect with. In the first half hour I was almost dumbfounded by the collection of images–the creation of earth, all beautiful and accompanied by opera. A quote from Job starts the whole thing off, saying, “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the Earth? Tell me, if you have understanding.” Terrence Malick’s film, his fifth in four decades, explores the two facets of humanity–nature and grace. It has a huge focus on religion and faith, dominated by music more than dialogue, and constantly over dubbed with whispers of “Where are you?” Cries from hurt hearts and wandering minds.
The most notable opening sequence, after briefly being introduced to the characters, Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien (Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain) and their three sons, Mrs. O’Brien receives a telegram that her middle son has passed away. Overwhelming grief and despair floor their family. From here Malick takes us on our creation journey, first through incredible cloud formations and out-of-this-world (literally) shots, down to flowing lava and ocean life. Some might think that this is a display of how insignificant one life is in the scheme of things, but after the first half hour of creation we are treated to a slow moving view of the family’s life in Waco, Texas during the 1950s. Immediately there is a stark contrast between life now, and life in the 50s. Lazy hot summer days full of hoses, open windows and unlocked doors, and neighborhood boys playing outside until dusk.
It is not necessarily a character study, although there are a lot of character insights. It is an impressionist film that follows the ebb and flow of this family, always with the overhanging knowledge that one of their boys won’t live past 19. We watch as the oldest, Jack (newcomer Hunter McCracken, later played by Sean Penn) is born and then grows through innocent childhood and the beginnings of adolescence when he begins to push and pull against parental discipline. Brad Pitt again does an excellent job as the disciplinarian father. For those who grew up in the 50s, it seems that his form of parenting is the norm. He is the epitome of manliness and although he shows affection to his children, he spends much of his onscreen time trying to make sure they learn how to be men, from fighting to how to conduct themselves in business to how to take care of a lawn. He represents nature, whereas Jessica Chastain represents grace. Her mottos in life are to love everyone and everything, and always to forgive. Mr. O’Brien says that she believes you only have to be a good person to get ahead in life, but on the contrary she believes that you should be a good person in order to live a fulfilled life.
The two conflicting spiritual approaches of Jack’s parents lead to his own confusion. Deepak Chopra from The Huffington Post says that, “his Job-like father and his saintly mother stand at two poles. An Old Testament God pulls him one way, a New Testament God the other. The beauty of this dilemma, which could seem artificially schematic, is that it feels so American.” Perhaps this is the beauty that I find within the story of this film. Not only does it delve into childhood spirituality, but it is so starkly representative of American memories. It brings back childhood memories so well that it almost makes me mourn the amount of technology that now permeate our lives. Perhaps that is also the beauty between Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien. Although Brad Pitt’s character is a hard-working man who is always chasing his dreams, he says several times that he could have been more but he made sacrifices. He is a talented musician who plays the piano and the organ beautifully, but instead of pursuing this as a career he works at a local factory for the love of his family. He is continually chasing the material, while Chastain’s character is constantly seen simply enjoying God’s creation. There is even one scene where we see her dancing through thin air. This could have simply been a child’s perfect memory of his angelic mother, but could also be a pure hearted woman more concerned with God than with man.