After what seemed like an eternity to fans of Terrence Malick's filmography, Tree of Life made its debut at Cannes. Responses to the film were varied and lines were drawn in the sand. Terrence Malick tends to have that reaction on people. From Badlands to The New World, the atmospheric flourishes and strokes that Malick uses to paint his stories quite often alienate viewers. Common narratives are often ignored in favor of sweeping shots of the world around the characters and ethereal voice overs that convey the thoughts, hopes and dreams of those we watch onscreen.
Mr. O'Brien and Mrs. O'Brien offer contrasting lifestyles to their three children: the way of force and the way of grace. The patron O'Brien knows what little this life gives, it has to be hard-earned, or taken. Regret has colored Mr. O'Brien's life by his passions that have languished and he needs to make that impact felt for his three sons. Life is not to be frivolously spent and Brad Pitt's evenhanded approach to the patriarch is one of the major strengths of a film that feels disjointed. Jessica Chastain similarly presents a strong foil to her domineering husband.
Mrs. O'Brien suggests there has to be a different way: nurture. Throughout the majority of Tree of Life, Jack is adapting to the world he finds himself in. He rails against his father, yet when given time to flourish in his absence, Jack instead revels in the violence that his mother objects to. Torn between two worlds, Jack struggles to find himself.
For all of the beauty present in the shots of Earth in its adolescence, Malick loses focus in what is really the core of Tree of Life: family. The trials and tribulations as Jack goes from wayward youth to lost adult (Sean Penn) should be the highlight, but it is shifted from so frequently that the story has no time to lay down its roots. Without a doubt these renderings of space and primordial Earth are breathtakingly captured by Emmanuel Lubezki. Few scenes in cinematic history are as beautiful as these. Yet, the loose connection to the dichotomy that is Jack's childhood detracts from the ultimate effort.
The depiction of small-town life in Texas is something that Malick has done before and does well. When he focuses on that subject he excels. To argue that Terrence Malick only focus on minute details is not a realistic expectation as he is one of the few auteurs that always has a larger focus. Frustratingly, this results in a film that is both wonderful and messy.
**1/2 out of ****