Oscar reviews: Tree of Life subverts traditional storytelling

by Eric Twardzik / Beacon Staff • February 23, 2012

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Brad Pitt as Mr. O'Brien
Photo Courtesy of Fox Searchlight
Brad Pitt as Mr. O'Brien
Photo Courtesy of Fox Searchlight

Most movie experiences end with the credit roll, or for remarkable cinema, the moment you push the hand dryer button in the theater bathroom. Terrence Malick’s unforgettable Tree of Life is among that rarest breed of cinema, the kind that walks with you out of the theater, climbs next to you in the car, and sits across from you at the breakfast table in the morning. 

A common complaint filed against the film was that it does not have a story. But, as anyone who can make memories knows, our stories are so much more than linear narrative. Stories are made of light, air, sound and shape. Like Federico Fellini’s 8 ½ or Malick’s own The Thin Red Line, the story we are given was not designed for easy audience digestion, but to reenact how stories play out in our the minds of those who experience them.

The lost world of childhood, as distant as the paleolithic past the film briefly explores, is rendered beautifully with the wonder and danger that exists all around it. Mrs. O’Brien (Jessica Chastain), viewed by her infant son, floats in the air like an angel in ecstasy. Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt), a tragic box of love and rage, stares into his son’s soul as a church organ plays notes thick with menace. It’s a triumph of perspective. We never feel that we are watching the early years of Jack (Hunter McCracken) as an audience, but through his own consciousness as it changes with age.

It’s not a film that you simply wish to see again. It is an experience that you wish you could return to, like a forgotten past or lost friend. Just as you can never be sure of every secret memory holds, The Tree of Life will require many viewings to reap its greatest rewards.