NOTE: I'm about to write what is sure to be one of the shorter (or at least insubstantial) reviews of my professional (read: "not professional at all") career. I have been trying to put my thoughts into words regarding Tree of Life for the better part of three weeks now and both attempts to write have resulted in long-winded, dull, and filled with tangents that really didn't make a lot of sense. As a result, I've gotten to a point where I just need to spit this review out and be done with it because the further I am away from my viewing, the tougher it becomes to put together a cohesive review. Please do not take my limited words to be an indication of the value of this film as a whole.
Ostensibly, Tree of Life is about Jack (Sean Penn and Hunter McCraken), a child of the '50s whose father, Mr. O'Brien (Brad Pitt), was a hard man to live with. I say ostensibly because...well...you'll see. O'Brien isn't a drunk, abusive, or even particularly mean; he's simply hard, the poster boy for the hardworking, blue collar man of his generation. He loves his sons tremendously but has a tough time showing it and Jack takes the brunt of that difficulty. Most of the time Jack is shown in his teenage form and he is used to illustrate the concept of growing up. TOL cuts back and forth between the past and present which finds Jack as a businessman who shows many of the same characteristics of the father who he's always struggled to connect with. In many ways, Tree of Life could really be called Circle of Life and I think (think is a key word here) that's a big part of what director Terrence Malick is going for.
But really that's only about 25 percent of the story. Using a non-linear narrative that is all at once difficult to stick with and wholly engrossing, Malick weaves together a tapestry that appears a bit jumbled when looking at each stitch individually but becomes a near masterpiece when viewed as a whole. TOL stretches out its focus to include the creation of the earth, the reign of dinosaurs (yes, this movie has dinosaurs), and the dawn of man. It then diverts to include nature of God, the role of prayer, and what I believe is Malick's own vision of heaven. If that sounds too wide-ranging, let me say that I'm probably not hitting on a number of other subjects that make their way into this film and yet it all blends together spectacularly. It is an insanely personal film, too, and that comes screaming through in every almost every scene. I have no idea what Malick's beliefs may be but whatever they are, he's clearly wrestling with his spiritual identity (again, no idea if that identity is Christian, Atheist, Buddhist, or whatever else). You can see why it took Malick so long to fine-tune and craft TOL and why the reactions to it have been so extreme between those who would call it the best film ever to those who couldn't make it through the first 15 minutes.
I wouldn't say I fall into either of those camps. TOL is so challenging that I would stop short of calling it perfect or "one of the best ever." Personally I think there has to be a level of accessibility for a film to be included in those categories and that's definitely not a big part of TOL. At the same time, it is a supremely well-made film that is almost completely left up to the interpretation of the viewer and that in and of itself is a stroke of genius. (It's also the most beautiful film I have ever seen; if TOL does not receive some serious attention from the Academy Awards then I may have to consider anarchy.) In truth, my review and any other review you might read couldn't possibly do Tree of Life justice. It's the sort of film you simply have to see for yourself before judging it one way or another.