By Stephen Swanson, WCCO-TV
Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life is one of the most unusual film epics ever created, both in scope and intention. Mostly grounded in 1950’s Waco, Texas (Malick’s hometown), the focus is on a young family, consisting of a stern, hard-working father (Brad Pitt), a gentle and angelic mother (Jessica Chastain), and three young sons — primarily the eldest, 11 year-old Jack (Hunter McCraken).
In fact, the film is mostly memory snippets from the adult Jack (Sean Penn), whose middle-aged struggles send him into his past in an attempt to sort out the meaning of his existence. Seems simple enough, right? As Samuel L. Jackson said in Jurassic Park, “Hold onto your butts.”
The Tree of Life attempts to go beyond the family struggle at the heart of the film. And by beyond, I mean it takes a major, primordial detour about a quarter of the way through that eventually drops us into the Jurassic period! This detour is both head-scratching and utterly captivating, so much so that I yearn for this sequence to become a proper Malick movie of its own. Whether or not it’s a remnant of Malick’s impossibly epic intentions gone awry, it ultimately works in the finished project.
The film (the 50s Waco portions, at least) is largely a strand of unique, unrehearsable moments. Malick rented a couple blocks in Waco, housed the cast and extras, entrenched them firmly in the 1950s, and then let things happen. The result is an incredible collection of those little memory nuggets you’d never think, at the time, would be branded into your brain forever: dusk’s shimmering light on a bedroom wall, a particularly sudsy bath, or your playful mother waking you up with ice cubes.
As with most Malick films, Tree is filled with dreamy narration, and some of the most astonishing photography in film history. In fact, Tree is, visually, Malick’s magnum opus. You could just watch it without sound, and still take one of the most dazzling, emotional journeys of your life.
The Tree of Life also contains, for my money, the best cinematic portrayal of 20th century American boyhood.
Most audiences are not conditioned for unusual works like The Tree of Life. If you fear you may be in this category, get training. The Tree of Life is everything cinema should be: spellbinding, challenging, and overflowing with humanity.