"The only way to be happy is to love. Unless you love, your life will flash by."
Be prepared. This is an atypical film. It doesn't arc in expected ways; it doesn't always take you where you think you're going. It's long (better than two hours) and, clearly, not everyone's cup of cinema. Viewers seem about equally divided into the love/hate camps. Not a lot of lukewarm reactions.
A few serious recommendations: see it on as big a screen as you can, with as good a sound system as possible, and turn it up—loud. There's a lot of whispering. But do listen to the whispering, it's good stuff. If you see this DVD on a tiny screen with AM radio sound (trust me on this) you will lose a lot that makes The Tree of Life an effective piece of art. You've been warned.
It is a piece of art, in my opinion, worthy of your time and attention.
Where is God in a movie with such a title? Pretty much everywhere.
It begins, soundless, with the superimposition of Job 38:4,7 in white letters on a black screen:
"Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?...When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?"
Actually, this scripture is as clear a thematic statement as any. God is bigger than us, his ways are not our ways. God doesn't run his plan by us before executing it.
Early in this story there is a whisper in the midst of human tragedy—a son is lost and a mother questions God:
"Who are we to You?"
"Where were You?"
Words of grief. Sincere inquisition.
Then—the immensity of space, cold and mysterious. The birth of matter and the evolution of life. The power of the sea, volcanoes erupting. Jellyfish descending, in pulsing magnificence. Dinosaurs. A meteorite. Creation and destruction. The juxtaposition of beauty and terror. Life and death. Cruelty and mercy. Does this power—this power with the infinite patience to birth the universe—does it hear a mother's desperate question? Does it care?
This movie is visually stunning. There are lengthy, documentary-like segments showing images of space and Earth, of nature and the kingdom of man. For a moment you might think they're out of place, a distraction from the story you're watching. The one about a family with three young boys growing up in rural America in the 50s, trying to reckon their place under the sun and moon. But these images are crucial to the story. They take it to another level, helping us to see that the ordinary struggles of ordinary people are majestic, epic, beautiful, and terrifying. The story of the universe, after all, is the story of us.
Another theme running through this movie: there are simple joys in life that happen right alongside inexplicable suffering. At some point, bad things are coming for us. It may not be our place to "attempt to fathom the inscrutable workings of Providence" (Frederick Smith, first Earl of Birkenhead), yet we do attempt to, don't we? As a friend of mine's father once said, "The Lord works in mysterious ways, and there's nothing you can do about it."
This movie hits on all the issues we grapple with. Innocence and its loss. The lure of sin. Crulety, violence, sex, control, loss of control, search for meaning, the yearning for love and a sense of order in the midst of unkindness and chaos. Parents both succeeding and failing to find the balance between love and discipline, play and ambition. Wondering where God is in it all. The Tree of Life examines the human condition in all its glory and tragedy, and it does so with a sweeping, poetic nod to the fact that film is a visual medium that often says the most when it reveals with images rather than tells in words.
Brad Pitt is convincing and ambiguous as the overly-serious father and husband, Mr. O'Brien. Sometimes you want to hate him, but you can't quite. He sincerely loves his boys and wants to do right by them, guide them, prepare them for real life. His own perceived failures and fears manifest as a hardness that is capable of hurting the ones he loves in the name of absolute paternal authority. Mr. O'Brien (to use a voiceover quote from the film) "finds reasons to be unhappy, when all the world is shining around (him) and love is smiling through all things."
Jessica Chastain, as the mother, is the balance to Pitt—perpetually gentle and playful, reassuring and loving. She is unfailing love and grace.
The O'Brien's have three boys. The story is primarily seen through the oldest son, Jack, played with tremendous subtlety and finesse by actor Hunter McCracken.
Sean Penn is in the movie too. He does a fine job, but his role is pretty minor.
The Tree of Life is a moving, ambitious, and intelligent film. It asks great questions without hitting you over the head with contrived answers.
There is a lot here that I am not touching on. This film is layered and smart. Some of the imagery and its meaning may pass you by (as it did me the first time through), but it packs a punch if you trust it and let it carry you through the micro and macro experiences it unfolds. If you are patient, and okay with non-linear storytelling—if you appreciate
cinematic artistry, fine acting, and thoughtful examination of the human condition—you will like this film. I did.