Pitt-Penn starrer offers no easy answers
Brad Pitt, Sean Penn and Jessica Chastain probe into the mysteries of human existence in Terrence Malick’s ruminative “The Tree of Life.” But, the questions they ask – especially those addressed to God – don’t have easy answers: “Why do bad things happen to good people?” “Who are we to You?”
The reclusive director’s existentialist drama, winner of the coveted Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes film fest, examines the consequences of tragedy in the context of a family’s grief over the death of a beloved son and brother.
Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien (Pitt, Chastain) and their three boys thrive in the safety of their peaceful suburban community in the 1950s – he is as loving and stern as she is doting and affectionate. But, the couple’s world is shattered when their 19-year-old son dies – a tragedy that also haunts their eldest son, Jack (Penn). Does life take a grinding halt with his passing? How does this tragic turn of events figure in the larger scheme of things?
Malick returns with a rapturous meditation on life, love and loss whose impressionistic execution is too radical for mainstream cinema. Moviegoers who have been weaned on noise, speed and linear storytelling will find the movie slow and ponderous, but the filmmaker astutely conveys the laborious progression and evolution of human life.
But, patience has its rewards. A must-see for movie buffs, “The Tree of Life” offers insights about the metaphysical aspects of our existence by utilizing provocative analogies that put them in perspective – starting with the Big Bang and the confounding story of the biblical character, Job:
Man can’t arrogantly think that his fear of death is any different from that felt by a wounded elasmosauros dying on a deserted beach during the age of the dinosaurs. This is just one of the many breathtaking images Malick bombards his viewers with.
The movie, which could benefit from judicious editing, feels more like a prayer delivered by its cast in whispered musings. As Mrs. O’Brien holds her impressionable toddler in a tight embrace, she points to the translucent sky and giddily declares, “That’s where God lives!” But, when she’s overwhelmed with grief over the boy’s passing many years later, she questions God’s wisdom, “Where were You?”
Charged with visual poetry, the film strings together seemingly disparate scenes, but Malick imbues them with palpable humanity and searing vision. As its characters go about their busy lives, they’re always guided by Mrs. O’Brien’s gentle reminder: “The only way to be happy is to love. Without it, life just passes you by!”
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