Length: 138 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Age Appropriate for: 15+; there’s no graphic or explicit violence or sexual content, but some implied sexual desire and some angry family angst scenes. The what’s-the-meaning-of-life? theme will probably be too overwhelming or boring for younger audiences, though.
Is ‘The Tree of Life’ beautiful, tremendous, a triumph for director Terrence Malick? Definitely. But don’t abide by the PG-13 rating: I guarantee that 99 percent of teens won’t get it.
By Roxana Hadadi
I saw “The Tree of Life” on Monday, May 16 — more than two weeks before the film’s release in Washington, D.C., on Friday, June 3. Not a day has passed that I haven’t been angry that I couldn’t go out into theaters and see it again. Hollywood, let me give you my hard-earned dollars! That’s all I’ve ever wanted!
Every day since the film’s press screening, I’ve thought about “The Tree of Life”: its stunning beauty, its emotional core, its sometimes goofy narration and its surreal, impressive visuals. Sometimes Terrence Malick’s 138-minute masterpiece feels exceedingly hokey, like the man was struggling with some kind of inner turmoil about faith, God and the evils of humanity and needed to splash it all onscreen in the most bombastic way possible so others could feel it, too. But more often than not, it’s exactly that unsure, questioning dialogue coupled with those strikingly haunting images of space, the beginnings of our world and an idyllic-yet-troubled childhood in 1950s Texas that makes the whole thing work.
We’re forced to live in our world for better or for worse, Malick says, but it’s our own free will that helps us decide whether we want to be competitive and brutal or sensitive and ethereal. He proposes two options for us, embodied in ‘50s couple Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt) and his wife Mrs. O’Brien (Jessica Chastain), and then reflects our own yearnings in their eldest son, Jack (portrayed as a child by Hunter McCracken and then as an adult by Sean Penn). Torn between his father’s strict authoritarianism and his mother’s otherworldly affection, Jack struggles with who he wants to be, who he truly is on the inside. Watching him grow up while yanked between two opposing poles, we struggle, too — and his hardships, his desperate attempts to determine what defines life and living, become our moral crises.
But Malick doesn’t tell stories in a linear way — detractors of his previous works, like “The Thin Red Line” and “The New World,” harp on his films’ lengthy runtimes and numerous shots of nature, like fields of grass or flocks of birds — and “The Tree of Life” doesn’t just follow Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien and their three sons while they grow up, la dee da, oh look now they’re teenagers, oh look now the parents are fighting, oh look the family is struggling financially, blah blah blah. Malick instead takes a phenomenally ambitious approach, jumping from Jack’s adult life to his childhood, then from ‘50s Texas to the universe that surrounds us, then to the beginnings of our world and the dinosaurs and other organisms that populated it — all as a way to map every aspect of life on Earth.
Does that mean parts of the movie resemble a middle-school science video, or the textural lights and landscapes of Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey”? Sure they do — especially since special effects master Douglas Trumbull, who worked with Kubrick on “2001,” also worked with Malick on “The Tree of Life.” But this intriguing, engaging film elicits so much wonder, tragedy and undeniable grandeur that the similarities don’t really matter. It’s like Malick is wearing his heart on his sleeve for all of us to experience, and that’s respectable in a time when most directors hide between big explosions and poor 3-D and terrible scripts, too afraid to really reach out to their audiences. “The Tree of Life” will resonate with viewers in a way few films have so far this year — maybe even this decade — and it’s an astonishing accomplishment for a man who has spent years trying to make it happen.
It would be difficult to try and describe how Malick strings together the development of humanity and society, so I won’t. It’s enough to know that he focuses most of his story on Jack, who has grown into a man disconnected from his parents and still mourning the loss of a younger brother. A Houston architect, he lives in a world of glass buildings and elevators and walls, the only nature in his workplace being a small tree growing in the middle of a plaza. It’s the symbolism of that tree, perhaps, that transports him back to his childhood in Waco, Texas, where he butted heads with his father, a man forced to abandon his own dreams in order to support his family. Beat down and bitter by the unfairness of life, Mr. O’Brien barks at his children, barks at his wife, demands love instead of earning it. Diametrically opposed is Mrs. O’Brien, slight and beautiful and expressive, so in tune with nature that she seems to float and fly from place to place, inviting her children along with her in a Peter Pan-like blaze of youth.
Caught in the middle is Jack, unsure of whether he is more like his cruel father or delicate mother. And on a grander scale, we’re all caught in the middle, trapped between Earth and the heavens; in numerous voiceovers, young Jack and Mrs. O’Brien (as embodiments of our own inner uncertainties) reach out to God for answers explaining why their lives have been shattered through loss. Those sequences are simultaneously some of the film’s best and worst parts: The whispered narration becomes repetitive at times, especially when it seems like Chastain’s character spends more time talking to God than to her own family (“Was I false to you? Lord, why? Where were you?” is her constant wondering refrain), but the planets, stars and clouds that Malick creates are breathtaking. The end of the film becomes unabashedly sentimental — and is sadly not as creative as everything that comes before it — but even then, the bravery Malick shows in offering up his vision of the afterlife is inspiring enough.
“The Tree of Life” is rated PG-13 and includes some cursing, implied sexual feelings and violent images, like Mr. O’Brien fighting with his family and Jack acting out with a band of young ruffians. But it’s not the film’s brief suggestions of sexuality and violence that make it wrong for teens — they just won’t really get it. These themes are too overwhelming for younger audiences, too sprawling in their probing of who we are and why we are. Parents, however? Go for it. I know I will be.