Dysfunctional family values get the metaphysical cosmic soup to nuts treatment in The Tree Of Life, though having nothing to do with what’s for dinner. Veteran filmmaker Terrence Malick, better known for socially tinged drama targeting the tabloid media (Badlands), migrant labor worker exploitation out on the plains (Days Of Heaven), and Native American grievances (The New World) seems to have gone rather incongruously New Age and insular with his latest screen venture, pursuing touchy feely notions as the ‘answer’ for whatever ails the world.
Sean Penn is Jack O’Brien in The Tree Of Life, but not for very long. A role which is oddly enough both protagonist and virtual cameo, and originally intended for the late Heath Ledger. A child of small town 1950s Texas, Jack is now a brooding big city corporate executive disillusioned with life and deeply cynical about the human rat race.
And except for these fleeting moments in the present in this top prize winner at Cannes, the entire film is a journey of memory back to the beginning of planet earth, and intertwined with Jack’s troubled boyhood where he’s played by a quite impressive Hunter McCracken. And where Jack endures a stern father (Brad Pitt), submissive mother (Jessica Chastain) and the sudden death of his teenage brother. Though we never learn the exact where or why of this tragedy, even as a military incident is vaguely implied.
Those somber, intermittently joyful recollections alternate with surreal landscapes alluding to the origins of the galaxy, and the concurrent eternal enigma of human suffering and mortality. These dazzling but self-indulgent mystical digressions weaken the drama, and are perhaps better suited to a planetarium light show, the Discovery Channel, or any number of those neat inundating screen savers.
Likewise ethereal as if taking place on another planet, is Texas born Malick’s conception of the pseudo-innocent 1950s and in particular the South. Okay, we know that people tend to idealize their own childhood, but there’s something just a bit too mystifying going down here. Except, of course, for Pitt’s really bad dad. At a time when racism was pretty high on the regional to-do list and Jim Crow was all the rage, there’s not a single Hispanic in sight. A few African Americans do turn up for about thirty seconds, without explanation and nothing to say, selling some personal items in the town square. And as far as the religious sentiments anchoring this bible belt yarn, it’s not a stretch to invoke something to the effect that on the 7th day, God created white people.
There is a brief chilling interlude, where the local kids dance around in the plumes of toxic DDT being dispensed from a truck around the suburban neighborhood as the pest control of choice back then, but that’s about it. Not that a movie has to talk about everything, but the enormous new impact of television, rock ‘n roll, indeed the emergence of defiant youth culture back then are just a few of the assorted elephants in the room.
Meanwhile, that extreme tough love dad periodically terrorizes the three boys for infractions like elbows on the table deemed a near felony, as their obedient mom like the fourth child in the family says nothing, until she does on occasion. And a PG world without a single hint of sex or grossout, spins off into a dumbstruck celestial void more like Sunday church than a movie.
Fox Searchlight Pictures