I believe there are three kinds of films: film as art, film as entertainment and film that has both artistic and entertainment value. Terrence Malick's “The Tree of Life” falls squarely in the art category. It is a film that will confound and bore some, while leaving others enthralled.
This is a film that defies how we as an audience have been trained to watch films. There is no real plot to speak of. The film is certainly about something, but there is no three-act structure — no clear beginning, middle or end.
Questions like “What's going on?” Or “What does that mean?” are very likely while watching “The Tree of Life.” The best way to process the film is emotionally. Many scenes play with little or no dialogue and rely solely on the power of the images and accompanying music. To be sure this is often an astoundingly beautiful film. If anything, simply looking at the visuals of the film is worthy.
The primary focus of the film is a husband and wife (Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain) and their three sons (Hunter McCracken, Laramie Eppler and Tye Sheridan). Pitt, a former naval man, is a harsh disciplinarian, who is psychological and, eventually, physically abusive to his family. Chastain plays a sweet, innocent, childlike mother, who, despite the passage of time, always retains an ageless beauty.
Through this family, Malick is attempting to explore the meaning of life, love and existence. It is an ambiguous exploration to say the least that yields some revelations, but no clear answers, which is probably the point. There are no true answers to these questions, only the search for them.
The acting in the film is strong throughout and has a natural quality. It's almost as if we aren't watching actors, but merely peering in on real life. Yet, at the same time, there's an ethereal quality to much of the film.
Pitt is very good as the stern father who, as an audience, we grow to find loathsome and yet he does have moments of sympathy. Some films would portray the character simply as an abusive monster, but there's more complexity here.
The film looks at how strict disciple without compassion can cause the opposite of the desired effect. The middle son Jack, played by the excellent McCracken, turns bitter, rebellious and even mean. He also loses respect for his mother because she allows herself to be treated so poorly.
Jack is later played by Sean Penn, but the actor is asked to do little more than brood and look weary. The older Jack does allow the audience a clue, though, on how to possibly process a film that at times seem impenetrable. What we are seeing, at least in part, are likely Jack's memories. The film jumps around time, much like someone flipping through memories and, as with memories, there is a certain dreamlike quality.
Much of the film is filled with seemingly unrelated images of nature — crashing ocean waves, waterfalls, sunflowers, sunsets — so much so that, at times, the film feels like a nature documentary. Malick even shows us nothing less than the creation of the universe and progression of our planet. There are even brief scenes featuring dinosaurs. It is hard to say what these visuals have to do with the family at the center of the film except to place them into a larger context of existence.
This is most definitely not a film for everyone. It is slow and meandering and certainly will try many people's patience. Still there's something there. If anything, this is a conversation starter even if only to figure out what you just watched.