There are things we rarely talk about with other people. Things we internalize and wrestle with ourselves. Questions about who we are and how we became the people we are. Thoughts about what happens when we die. Questions that can be traced back to our upbringing and our parents but also things that are inherent in everyone and everything. Broad stroking questions and/or themes that have been prevalent since the dawn of existence. "The Tree of Life" comes across as director Terrence Malick's personal thought process through a variety of these massive over-arching questions that we all can relate with.
First and foremost "The Tree of Life" feels like a voyage through Terrence Malick's memories growing up in small town America in the 1950's. Sean Penn plays Jack, an adult who thinks back to his youth growing up after a phone call with his father (Brad Pitt). Jack's memories span his infant life up through to his pubescent childhood with his two brothers. A substantial portion of this reflection revolves around the complicated relationship he had with his father. In a flashback or slideshow of images cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki takes us through a slow but beautiful progression of Jack's youth climaxing with one summer in the 1950's set in Texas. This aspect of the film is essentially absent of narrative. Snapshots and long takes of significant memories that are absolutely stirring. Much like looking through a photo album and reflecting on the feelings and memories the images evoke. The older the children get however, the more prominent the memories become. Morphing into actual scenes with dialogue being exchanged between the actors yet still feeling dream-like. While most will find the easiest to digest are the scenes that made the most impact on Jack's psyche. For instance an argument, where we see the strained relationship between a father and his son, but all of the memories hold tremendous weight to Malick's goal.
The poster to the film (pictured above) does a fabulous job of visualizing the notion of the memories. Having seen the film, the poster holds different meaning, you can look back at these stills and reflect on the moments created within the film. The emotions and the impact they had not only on the audience but the characters within the film itself. "The Tree of Life" forces the audience to grapple with some of the same emotions Jack is coping with. Not only Jack's emotions, but parents could very easily relate with the sentiment and themes Mr. and Mrs. O'Brien (Jessica Chastain) are struggling with throughout the film as well. Again, situations and emotions that we normally do not internalize on a regular basis. Coming to terms or confronting these emotions makes the film a draining experience. This is not a turn your brain off or go with the flow type of film. There is some level of critical thinking required. There is also a push into emotional territory some audience members may not be comfortable with. While that may read like a warning, it is not, "The Tree of Life" is a poignant film that I think everyone should see and discuss. It is a film that may open up discussion about specific topics you may otherwise never shared with others.
While Jack wrestles with memories of his youth, "The Tree of Life" also tangles a history between religion and creationism. The creationism angle being another string of images dating back to the Big Bang. Long sequences of space and natural elements on Earth. The scenes feel like moments to take in the beauty of Earth and life within it. Stuff one would have previously seen on the Discovery channel or on the amazing science driven mini-series Planet Earth, but deeper than those documentary-style programs Malick's film digs into gestures of how small we humans are in the grand scheme of things. Once again Terrence Malick evokes a exhausting thought process by simply providing imagery to questions that have crossed every person's mind at some point. Themes that are prevalent not in just human life but in all life. Age old philosophical questions that will continue on through time with no fact based answers but only experiences.
"The Tree of Life" touched me. It is poetically inspired, visually stunning and a daring expression of one person's tussle with the questions of life. It is a film that feels inherently personal yet is equally universal. It is a experience like none other, a film that houses fantastic performances conveying honest questions about faith, the meaning of life and innocence. See it, absorb it and discuss it.