The Tree of Life

Directed By: Terrence Malick

Starring: Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, and Jessica Chastain

Never before have I seen a film that captures life.  That's a huge concept with a range of implications.  It's a nearly impossible endeavor for any filmmaker.  However, Terrence Malick has proven me wrong.  Malick's The Tree of Life does the impossible in a grand way.  From grappling with the meaning and scope of life to questioning the purpose of faith, Malick covers a broad array of topics.  The Tree of Life is an ambitious, groundbreaking film that may be paving the way for the next generation of bold filmmakers.

Jack O'Brien (Sean Penn) is a middle-aged architect in the present day who reflects on his upbringing in a Texas suburb back in the 1950s.  He reflects on his brother's untimely death at the age of 19 and how his family coped with this tragedy.  In a series of brief memories, Jack reminisces on the tumultuous relationship with his strict father Mr. O'Brien (Brad Pitt), the loving relationship with his mother Mrs. O'Brien (Jessica Chastain), and  life with his two younger brothers.  Meanwhile Jack questions his faith and wonders about the meaning of existence.

Beyond Jack's memories, Malick addresses his concerns about life, its meaning, and its origins.  He interrupts the film's narrative on the O'Brien family to present images depicting the formation of the universe and the beginnings of life on Earth.  From young planets such as Earth to young life forms such as dinosaurs, Malick presents what limited answers we have to Jack's truly profound questions.  Even the limited understanding we have of the origins of life and the universe is an extremely immense concept to present in film.  Successfully embracing this concept on the big screen is an enormous endeavor that exemplifies masterful filmmaking at its best.

Memories are fragments of our past that often evoke feelings.  We may not remember the exact things people say to us, but we definitely remember the way they make us feel.  Malick understands this and skillfully weaves this notion into The Tree of Life.  Jack's reminiscence on his life is effectively a series of fragmented memories that shows us how he felt about his family.

Because Malick's film is a collection of fragmented memories, there are very few words spoken.  Given this, one thing that really has to be noted in this film is the impressive acting by the entire cast.  When actors are charged with making viewers feel a certain way without being able to say much, their physical presence and their body language become much more important components to conveying emotion and meaning to help set the tone of the movie.  Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, Jessica Chastain, and the cast tackle this daunting task and add layers of meaning to the many silent moments throughout the film.

The Tree of Life makes a huge bet that pays off for moviegoers in a grand way.  It's a film that is frustrating at times but that frustration represents the same range of emotions that men and women encounter when pondering the meaning of life, the purpose of faith, or any other question with a similarly immense scope.  Grappling with the grand concept of life is no small feat, and Terrence Malick does so masterfully.  Malick creates a film that will leave you thinking for days.  While The Tree of Life gets a sober rating, you may need a drink afterwards to deal with the enormity of what you've just seen.