Oscar Blindspots: The Tree of Life

Before we get done with 2021, I’ll be catching up on all the Oscar nominees and winners I have missed from the year 2011

You have to know what you are getting into with the work of director Terrence Malick. The Tree of Life is no exception. Filled with existential themes and an unclear narrative, the film is a beauty to behold but is difficult to grasp.

The film follows the memories of Jack O’Brien (Sean Penn, as an adult/Hunter McCracken as a child) and his family growing up in the 1950s. While primarily located in suburban Texas, the film jumps between the present day with Jack wandering through life as well as depictions of the birth of the universe and prehistoric times.

Jack’s dad (Brad Pitt) is a stern man who can’t grapple with his love for Jack and his two brothers. Jack’s mom (Jessica Chastain) is playful and accepting of Jack and his brothers.

Much of the film focuses on the dichotomy between Jack’s mom and dad. While mom is more loving and presents the world as a place to love and behold, dad is angrier and wants to prepare his sons for a world he sees as harsh and unforgiving. The constant push and pull between the two ideals is a struggle for Jack.

The most important relationship in the film is between man and God. Following the accidental death of one of his friends, Jack questions why God would allow things to happen. It also stumps his perception of morality and the need for it. This causes him to challenge his worldview and rebel against what he has been taught to believe. Similarly, Jack’s dad faces the same questions from an exterior point of view when things take a turn in his circumstances.

Malick presents none of this with a clear narrative or obvious message. Everything presented is merely flashes of what Jack remembers and the embodiment of a particular idea. Whispered voiceover accompanies many of the memories, with unanswerable questions lingering over the moving images.

Pitt is the most dominating force in the film. His character wants to be loving and sensitive, but the circumstances of his life and the choices he has made have turned him into a jaded and sad man. He continually attempts to control and bully every aspect of his sons’ lives since that’s the only thing he has left in his own life to control. It all comes down to a man who can’t come to terms with the love he has for his children. Pitt rounds all of that into a clear and complex characterization.

Chastain has less to do, but still exudes warmth. Where Jack’s dad is domineering, Jack realizes his mom is a pushover and not only won’t do anything for punishment, she doesn’t do anything to push against his dad’s behavior. McCracken gives a remarkable child performance. His young Jack is never anything other than a kid. He is not overly precocious or talks like an adult. He has childlike desires and can’t grasp the hypocrisy of adult behavior when they demand children to act a certain way. Laramie Eppler and Tye Sheridan also do fine work as Jack’s brothers.

The cinematography and score carry the whole film. Alexandre Desplat’s score is often primary to whatever dialogue is occurring onscreen. Sometimes, the score intentionally drowns out the conversations. This causes the audience to focus on the feeling instead of the substance. The cinematography is unique and spellbinding. Director of photography Emmanuel Lubezki never keeps the camera still; zooming along the ground and rapidly moving, even in a scene that would be normally subdued.

The gorgeous photography is ever-present and oftentimes more important to the narrative. The incorporation of how humans interact or overpower nature is one of the recurring themes.

The Tree of Life tries so hard to be about “something” that it feels congratulatory at the film’s conclusion. Despite the pretentiousness, it still worked on me. It might be one of the most beautiful films I’ve ever seen.

Next week: One of the most controversial Best Picture nominees gets a fresh look with Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

All Oscar Blindspots

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