I put off seeing The Tree of Life for a few days because I was intimidated by it. Would I be one of the people to ‘get’ it? Could I see through the metaphors and metaphysical dialogue and truly experience the film? Now after seeing it, I feel a sense of incongruity. The first half hour of the film is a joy and a challenge. Through time shifts and very selective shots, the audience witnesses the birth of the universe, the formation of the Earth, dinosaurs, all the way to the 1950s and the family of Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain, and their three sons. Here is where the film loses its sense of wonder. The domestic household scenes are mostly unpleasant to watch because Brad Pitt’s paternal role is overbearing and employs a harsh discipline system compared to his more amiable and understanding wife.
One of the sons grows up to be Sean Penn who spends the vast majority of his scenes in deep thought about the past, specifically back to this pre-teen childhood. If these moments from the ‘50s are his particular memories, then perhaps that is why most of the home scenes are distasteful, because we remember the bad times more clearly than the good times. I don’t know if there is anything in the film which more perceptive movie goers will ‘get’ more than others, but the glaring separation between the childhood sequences and every other shot in the film doesn’t work.
Roger Ebert wrote that The Tree of Life is a prayer for life and a hymn to the universe. Parts of it are and do so very powerfully during its evolutionary sequences and at various times during the ‘50s scenes with beautiful classical music playing over sights of rare domestic tranquility. However, the tension between the father and his sons and their childhood games and pranks disrupt the harmony of the Tree of Life and makes it more of a nuisance than a challenge trying to connect Terrence Malick’s dots.