Movie Review: THE TREE OF LIFE

Writer-director Terrence Malick has made just seven films in 35 years.  His latest, THE TREE OF LIFE, is challenging audiences all across the country, because it's completely different from any other movie showing in theaters right now.

THE TREE OF LIFE is a feature length film, all right, but it's also an art film with a capital "A."
Even though it won the grand prize at the Cannes Film Festival, I can't really recommend THE TREE OF LIFE partly because I don't really understand a lot of it.

A major theme is stated near the beginning in a voice over by the only woman in the film: "There are two ways through life," she says: "the way of nature and the way of grace. You have to choose which one you'll follow."

As I walked out of the screening, I felt like I'd just been through some kind powerful but disorienting primal therapy.

The film doesn't have a conventional dramatic structure, and there's a lot more voice over narration than dialogue. What really comes across are crucial moments in the lives of three brothers growing up in a small Texas town during the 50's with an overly strict father (played by Brad Pitt) and a sweet loving mother played by Jessica Chastain.

We learn very early that the middle son dies at the age of 19. But we aren't shown how he died or why. The film doesn't proceed in a straight line but instead jumps back and forth in time. Its most potent scenes show the childhood experiences of the three boys: formative events and touching moments that may well bring up long forgotten parts of your own childhood.

All this poignant recollection is combined with big questions about our place in the universe. Spectacular visuals and majestic music evoke spiritual realms. But although these long sequences are lovely to look at, it's hard to connect them to the characters.

The oldest of the sons, Jack, who must be 8 or 9 years old for most of the movie, is wonderfully played by Hunter McCracken.
Sean Penn plays Jack as an adult, still torn between his father (nature) and his mother (grace), though the film gives him little to do except look depressed.

Nothing is typical about this film. Even the shooting style is different, full of steadicam shots that follow the characters as they move, shooting from odd angles.

To sum up THE TREE OF LIFE" is an ambitious, poetic movie.
The actors are excellent, and the artistry of the director is obvious, but for many viewers (including this one) the film is too long and more than a little confusing.