Some films have a lot of hype before they are released. In the case of The Tree of Life, it's the credentials of the director, the all-star cast, and a key industry award.
The film, which just opened in limited release in the UK, is directed by Terrence Malick, who has directed only five films in the past 28 years (including the well-reviewed Badlands (1978), Days of Heaven (1978) and The Thin Red Line (1998)). The Tree of Life cast includes two-time Oscar winner Sean Penn and screen heartthrob Brad Pitt. And The Tree of Life won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival this past May.
The film opens with what looks like an image of a fetus for 30 seconds. Then we meet grief-stricken parents, Pitt and Jessica Chastain, wandering around the streets in their 1950s Americana neighbourhood, receiving condolences from neighbors after what appears to be the loss of one of their sons. It is all very fuzzy, and it is not clear what is going on. Then, for the next 50 minutes, we are treated to images of what appears to be the start of earth and life on this planet. These images are actually stunning, amazing and brilliant. We see waterfalls, birds in the sky, lava, the solar system, clouds, dinosaurs, lots of different fish swimming in the ocean, streams, images of buildings and lots lots more.
We are then transported back to Pitt and Chastain's home where the movie begins (again!). We see Pitt and Chastain with their three young boys (the actors who play the boys are all excellent and all look like they could be Brad Pitt's offspring) as they live their daily lives. The boys get into mischief, as boys do, but their father is strict and beats them when they misbehave. His presence alone in the house causes the boys to be uncomfortable; however, they love their mother unconditionally.
Fifty or so years on, and Sean Penn pops up, and it appears that he is one of the sons all grown up. He looks lost and sad as he strolls the corridors of his office, walks the streets of his city, and appears at home with his wife getting ready for a funeral. Who died? This question remains unanswered. Then we cut to images of Penn walking on a beach. Is it heaven? There he encounters his young self and his family. What does this all mean? It isn't clear what is happening or why. There is a great movie here, but The Tree of Life goes in too many directions and gets very confusing.
Mallick's previous films have been well-received and have been nominated for many awards. The Tree of Life has been widely-praised by the film industry, but has confused moviegoers. Several people walked out at the screening I went to, some within the first 20 minutes, and more about halfway through the movie.
So what is this film about? I am still not too sure. What I do know is that it is beautifully shot, excellently acted, and has stunning cinematography. But it lacks the reason we all go to the cinema: to see a story with an ending.