Out of all the amazing images in The Tree of Life, I was most taken with the hands of the father played so well by Brad Pitt. Those hands, trying to push, protect, control, envelop, guide. Those were my dad's hands, and mine now, as we keep trying. Trying.
I miss my dad. Over the last few years of his life, I watched him grow increasingly pale - his hair wispier, his eyes more distant. He kept fading until the day he was gone. I feel myself dissipating now. Slowly, to be sure, and I'm certainly here far more often than I'm not, but it's happening.
The Tree of Life is written and directed by Terrence Malick, whose other feature films are Badlands (1973), Days of Heaven (1978), The Thin Red Line (1998) and The New World (2005). In my review of his combat-related feature, The Thin Red Line I wrote, "If you're interested in a cinematic meditation on life and death that actually has substance, rent Peter Weir's Fearless. I wish Malick had. Then he might have realized that pretty pictures and vague pondering do not a movie make. War is hell and, moments of brilliance aside, so is The Thin Red Line.
Malick's new production is a 138-minute meditation on life, the universe, and our place in it. The impressionist film includes extended images depicting the creation of the universe, the birth of our world, the age of the dinosaurs, a detailed portrait of a Texas family in the '50s, a decades-later visit with one of the now-grown children from that family, and images of an afterlifeish reunion on a beach. Alexandre Desplat supplies the effective score.
I don't know what the me that wrote the 1998 Thin Red Line review would have made of all this. I may very well have praised the wonderfully-done family scenes, acknowledged the beauty of the other segments and made wisecracks about the languid pacing, the moments of Kubrickian trippiness and the questioning voice-overs. The 2011 me recognized various Malick traits I found annoying in the past, but The Tree of Life held me rapt all the way through.
The closest I came to distraction was during the scenes of a distressed Sean Penn as Jack, the aforementioned middle-age son. It seemed wasteful to take an actor of Penn's caliber and give him a nearly wordless part where he only gets to show one emotion. But even as I noted that, I remained under the spell of the film.
The most fascinating parts were those of the family in the '50s. The O'Briens: Three boys, including young Jack (Hunter McCracken), nurtured by their mother (Jessica Chastain) and more overtly guided by their father. The setting is idyllic, but the frustrations and conflicts of being part of a family are all there. The joys and trials of the O'Brien family seem universal because they are presented so specifically.
At the end of the movie, I talked with another writer who seemed similarly affected by the experience. A colleague approached and suggested that we had just watched the longest insurance company commercial ever made. When he heard us talking about the film in serious tones, he was courteous enough to stop joking.
My suggestion to you is this: to avoid being bored silly, don't go to see The Tree of Life unless you are in a meditative mood. And be prepared to discuss the reunion scene at the end. For what it's worth, I thought it was a representation of the reconciliation most of us make (or wish to make) with the people and memories that affected us most.
The big questions and big images in The Tree of Life reminded me of when I was a boy and my father got the telescope out at night, focused it with his big hands and showed me and my brother and sister the heavens. "Kind of makes you feel small, doesn't it?" he said and I kept quiet. What I thought was, "No it doesn't. I'm just as important a part of everything as all of the stars in the sky. All of us are." I still think that. Each of us is a vital piece of the tapestry of the universe. It wouldn't be the same without us. We matter as much as anything does.