MacGuffin Film Review – The Tree of Life

Film Review – The Tree of Life

What a strange, odd, haunting, beautiful, and fascinating film Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life (2011) is. As I sat there, in that dark theater, I watched with curiosity the story that was unfolding before me. Even now, thinking about it long after I saw it, I still find myself perplexed with what I experienced. This may be a fault of the film, but a part of me feels as though I was ill-prepared for it. Malick has been one of the most philosophical and mysterious filmmakers of the last few decades, making films that deal less with an actual narrative and more with the ideas of human nature, the purpose of existence, and the beauty of the world. With this movie, he has made his most grand, ambitious epic to date. Yet at the same time, it is also perhaps his most impenetrable.

To attempt to even try to describe the film with words is almost futile, because the movie is much about a feeling, rather than an actual story. Let’s start with what I do know. A part of the film deals with a family living in a 1950s Texas town. The center of the story is the young boy, Jack O’Brien (Hunter McCraken). Jack is like many youngsters his age: mischievous, always wanting to go out to play and cause trouble. He has two brothers near his age, and the three of them seem to be inseparable. Jack’s mother (Jessica Chastain) is a lovely and caring person. She treats her children as the most precious things in the world, and has just as much fun playing right along with them like a fellow sibling. Things aren’t exactly the same with Jack’s father (Brad Pitt). Mr. O’Brien was once a promising musician, but threw that potential away to help raise his family. He loves his children, but is a stern and tough man who runs his household with strict rules and discipline. When Jack slams the screen door, his father punishes him by making him quietly close it fifty times. If his children do something very wrong, he won’t hesitate knocking the dinner table to the side and putting them inside of the closet.

This way of living causes a rift between Mr. O’Brien and his kids, particularly with Jack. When a terrible accident befalls the family, this causes the separation to be almost beyond mend. Mr. O’Brien clearly cares about his kids, as we see him often times hugging his children and rubbing their heads with fondness (I found this to be particularly touching, as my father did the exact same thing to me), but he also wants them to grow up strong and independent. Although he has sincere intentions, Mr. O’Brien’s actions backfire on Jack, causing Jack to resent him. This relationship with his father, coupled with the accident that occurred, haunts Jack all the way up to his adult life. When we find Jack as his older self (Sean Penn), he has become a successful architect, surrounded by a world of skyscrapers and technology. However, Jack can’t shake the way things turned out with his father, and he searches within himself to try to understand why he ended up as he is, why the fate of his life brought him to this place, and what purpose he may have if he cannot let go of the past and have faith in his future.

While I may have described the general outline of Jack’s story, it feels as though the film is really about much more than that. There aren’t “scenes” in the film in the traditional sense, but more like fragments of Jack’s life. We see a moment after he is born, with Mr. O’Brien carefully touching his feet. Then we jump to Jack’s first steps, then the moment when his younger brother is brought home from the hospital. We see him playing in the fields, playing catch out on the street, going swimming, and reading books underneath the bed sheets with a flashlight. It feels like the film is a collage of all the moments that Jack remembers, as if his older self is trying to retrace all the important events in an attempt to better understand himself and his feelings of being lost. The editing is impressive as it collects all of these moments together in to a cohesive whole. It jumps through Jack’s life in a free form, stream-of-consciousness style. Andre Desplat’s music creates a haunting, timeless feel, as Emmanuel Lubezki’s camera swings through everything like a wayward voyeur sneaking a peek into this family’s life.

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