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5th February
written by Mad Cow

Rated: PG-13 for some thematic material (Well, that’s clear!)

Mad Cow’s Rating:

In the beginning, someone dies and we feel very sorry for his mother and father. We are sad, but not gripped, because we don’t know the circumstances or the people involved. And then we are subjected to at least 20 minutes of the wonders of the universe, gorgeous photography with one picture even more calendar-worthy than the next. The beginning of life, complete with dinosaurs, and the fullness and fury of life –volcanoes, protozoa, sea creatures, and landslides – enfolds before us. “What the…? Is this going to be the whole movie? Brief silent appearances of Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain, and Sean Penn and then this?

After 52 minutes went by, there appeared more of a story. The story is not about death and sadness but of the experiences of a boy growing up in a dysfunctional household in Waco, Texas with an abusive father in the 1950s. I recommend fast-forwarding to this actual narrative, and then expect some irritating passages here and there.

Brad Pitt as Mr. O’Brien is extraordinary as usual. He rules his three sons with an iron hand, exacting perfect yard work, insisting upon being called “sir” and later “father” (instead of Dad), and imposing immediate punishment for talking back. We get the usual argument-at-the-dinner-table scenes, with screaming and running away. Yet this father also shows love to his boys, and eventually has some insight into his behavior, albeit without resolution.

Mrs. O’Brien (Jessica Chastain, The Help; Take Shelter; The Debt) is a lovely, fairy-like, fun-loving mother, the perfect foil for dad, saving the boys but also becoming their object of contempt for what she seems to willingly endure. Her part is similar to the one she played in Take Shelter but with 1950s-style masochism thrown in. Chastain is remarkable and seemingly ubiquitous these days, and we can look forward to her portrayal as Princess Diana in a upcoming film.

The family endures a lot as families do. We follow Jack (Hunter McCracken), the oldest of the three boys, growing up and trying to find his way. He tries to control himself but there are few outlets for his frustration, anger, desires, and jealousy of his brothers. His urge to do something, find out something, all with while not knowing what it is exactly, is palpable.

If you’ve ever done “bad” things as a child that you couldn’t even justify or explain to yourself, you may identify with this boy. McCracken, who has never acted before, plays this kid with sensitivity. Jack is a child that you probably wouldn’t like if you met him on the street. I look forward to seeing McCracken in other movies.

The other two boys (Tye Sheridan as Steve and Laramie Eppler as R.L.) have smaller roles but they too are just right. Writer/Director Terrence Malick didn’t always give them the whole scene before it happened, directing them to do what felt natural in the face of a particular parental action. Remarkable is Eppler’s resemblance to Brad Pitt.

Bad things happen to good people, just as they happened to Job, we are told, and once we understand the glory of the universe (The Tree of Life) we will give in to it. In the first minutes and throughout the movie we get plenty of talking to God and thoughts about God, all in whispers. We get that these are private thoughts hanging out there, but they come through as preachy. Scenes that could have had resonance are filmed as in a dream. Jack follows a cute girl home. She is walking down the middle of the street. The music tells us how weighty the scene is. But it isn’t.

Malick (Badlands, Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line) is reportedly quite a character. Twenty years went by between Days… and Red Line…. It was 13 years between movies since then. His movies are “philosophical” and his reputation is undoubtedly enhanced by the fact that he was a Rhodes Scholar who studied philosophy at Oxford. He left without a degree after a disagreement with his advisor. It figures.

This movie is the work of an egotist. Apparently Sean Penn (Penn) has repudiated the final product and Christopher Plummer (Plummer ) says he’ll never work with Malick again. “Get a writer” he reportedly said. Some say that Penn is just mad because he didn’t have much acting to do! Why this isn’t a reasonable expectation is beyond me.

In the final analysis, we don’t actually get to see how the issues are resolved in the actual characters we observe. Penn does a lot of walking over rough terrain with various other people, apparently signifying process through time. We don’t really know how Mrs. O’Brien finally resolves her grief. At the end she gives her son back to God (Trust me, this isn’t a spoiler) and we have no idea why since we have not seen any significant moments in her life since the news of his death.

If one Googles The Tree of Life/Images, one gets an array of art and photographs indicating its use as a profound and moving metaphor. I get that much of the movie was symbolic. There is nothing wrong with symbolism, spirituality or religiosity. (By the way, Malick went to Catholic school. Just saying….) But there needs to be more of an emotional connection here, not just an intellectual leap, to get it right. Much of the film is simultaneously cold, sentimental and pretentious.

There is treasure in this movie but keep your hand on the remote and be sure to have a glass of wine and a bucket of popcorn nearby to help dispel the boredom and/or annoyance along the way.

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