- Running time:
- 138 minutes
- Brad Pitt -
- Mr. O'Brien
- Sean Penn -
- Jessica Chastain -
- Mrs. O'Brien
- Fiona Shaw -
- Irene Bedard -
Houston architect Jack (Sean Penn) struggles with life in a modern urban world. He loses himself in memories of his days as a young boy (Hunter McCracken) growing up in the suburbs with a saintly mother (Jessica Chastain), overbearing father (Brad Pitt) and two younger brothers (Laramie Eppler and Tye Sheridan). Also, we witness the creation of Earth, brief scenes from the age of the dinosaurs, and Jack transcending to some sort of higher spiritual plane that may or may not be heaven. Or, in the words of the film’s press notes, “[‘Tree of Life’] is a deep love story about how love emerges from life and life emerges from love.” Got it?
The buzz: Forget pirates, superheroes and raunchy comedies, there’s a certain segment of the moviegoing audience anticipating “The Tree of Life” as the event film of the summer. That’s because writer-director Terrence Malick has only released four previous films—“Badlands,” “Days of Heaven,” “The Thin Red Line” and “The New World”—over a span of 32 years and built up a fiercely devoted cult following in the process. But while Malick maintains legendary status among cinephiles, his modest output and narrative-thwarting brand of nature-loving art cinema has never met with major mainstream success. “The Tree of Life” received a minor pre-release publicity boost when it won the top prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, announced only one week before the film’s U.S. debut.
The verdict: If most movies tell stories that seem awfully small in the grand scheme of things, “Tree of Life” changes the game to actually consider the grand scheme of things. How does one person’s life compare to the birth of a planet, the universe? What shapes us? Why are we here? Where are we going? Malick explores the questions through thrillingly controlled visual storytelling—the film’s impressionistic imagery often borders on feature length montage—and considers both the origins of our world, complete with lavish “2001”-esque visual effects, and the coming of age of a young boy, without slipping into self-importance or exceptionalism. This is a story rich with personal detail, eager for universal understanding and recognition. Accepting the invitation of a fragmented narrative and unabashedly poetic style will be up to each individual, but “Tree of Life” asserts itself with more urgency and energy than Malick’s last two films and the art cinema norm. The idiosyncratic result proves so exciting that the film somehow winds up feeling conventional when it settles into the prolonged stretch focused on young Jack’s relationship with his parents. Initially subtle family dynamics become too exact—dad can be a monster, mom’s always an angel (sometimes literally)—but Pitt and especially Chastain make the characters play. This is a film that both encourages and embodies a spirit of self-reflection while pondering blatantly spiritual questions. That’s not what’s usually expected from a summer movie—or from movies in general—and what some viewers will find welcome, others will brand unsophisticated or reject as uncomfortable. “Tree of Life” will surely find plenty of detractors (“Where’s the plot?” “What’s the point?” “Why so pretentious?”) to counter its ardent admirers, but it’s far too ambitious and fascinating to dismiss. Here’s one cinematic spectacle aimed equally at the eyes, mind and soul.
Did you know? Malick apparently asked Chastain to study old films, especially the work of Lauren Bacall, to prepare for the time period of the role.
Follow Metromix's Geoff Berkshire on Twitter: @geoffberkshire
Movie theaters and showtimes for The Tree of Life in Rochester.
No Showtimes available
Catch up on recent film reviews you might have missed the first time around.