If it's crap ... We'll tell you
“Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation…while the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?”
Visionary director? Check. Charismatic leading man? Check. Dinosaurs…WTH? THE TREE OF LIFE conjures up philosophical questions on the meaning of life and why we’re all here, told through the eyes of a 1950’s suburban Texas family. And it is as exhilarating as it sounds. The film begins with a death in the family that sends shock waves throughout the neighborhood. The pace and tone has been set for an engaging, dark family drama. Then it fades to black and you see a glowing ball of fire. We’re shown the Big Bang and all the historical events that later follow, suddenly it feels like an episode of Planet Earth. Admitting, the captured space/nature footage is absolutely stunning, but it does nothing for the narrative and brings whatever momentum it had going for itself to a complete halt.
When we return to Texas, the death has not yet occurred, but rather we’re treated to an examination of this family’s life right before leading up to the tragedy. Brad Pitt is a powerhouse in a more restrained performance as the man of the house. He turns from loving father to authoritative drill sergeant in the blink of an eye. Another wonderful performance was by newcomer Hunter McCracken, who played Young Jack O’Brein. Starts out as the obedient eldest son, until his father leaves town for a business trip and then slowly his inner demons begin to expose themselves in the form of screaming at his mother, vandalizing property, and torturing small animals. The weak link is Sean Penn, who plays future Jack O’Brien, who is non-existent here as he wanders aimlessly throughout the film just looking gloomy and uninspired.
There is a compelling story to be told about family life during the 1950’s buried deep down somewhere in here but it’s too diluted by the fragmented, non-linear storytelling techniques that director Terrence Malick chooses to employ. Aside from the gorgeous visuals and strong performances, none of it is enough to rescue the film from the slow burn of it all. It feels like watching the making of molasses, it becomes tediously torturous. Either way, I liked it better the first time when it was called, 2001: A Space Odyssey.