This film is really unlike much of what we’ve seen before, and I think that, because it’s so different, it’ll just be adored everywhere. However, the core of the film really only lasts about 50 minutes. A Texas family in the 1960s receives notification of their son’s death, which ignites an existential crisis in all of them that seems to span space and time. It’s intermixed with odd, whispered voice overs and cuts of nature and the formation of the universe, backed by an expansive operatic overture–there are dinosaurs!
What’s great about this film, however, is Brad Pitt. That man can act. He plays Mr. O’Brien, a very hard man who has never really gotten a break in life, and always aspires to achieve the American dream–whatever that may be. He loves his family, though he’s not the best at showing it, and often loses his temper. His oldest son Jack begins to emulate this, but he takes it to a darker level in many cases, and is still struggling with those issues as an adult (played by Sean Penn, who has about 5 lines in the entire film). Then, just as the world began, the world ends, with another extended–but beautiful–sequence of the Earth begin consumed by the Sun. Then adult jack experiences a vision in which he chases his younger self through a desert, finally ending on a shoreline where he encounters figures from his life, and he finally can reconcile with his family, and himself.
It’s a portrait of the minutiae of family life in the 50s, but not the apple pie existence of Leave it to Beaver. Mr. O’Brien represents the cynicism of an unfulfilled dream, while his wife (played by Jessica Chastain–up for an Oscar in The Help) is a symbol of idealism and hope for her children. She wants them to dream and play, while her husband teaches them to fight and mind their manners so that they can survive in this hard, disappointing world. It’s about the effects of a difficult childhood and the power of memory. The visual metaphors are effective at times, though they stray often and push too hard to make their point: that our own existence is a microcosm unto itself. Its cinematography was brilliant, and its story was powerful, though it could have been much tighter and simpler. Some of the best parts came when the focus came upon the children and the family, who really came together with ease. Watching the children play about in the midst of this idyllic 1950s southern town, juxtaposed with their father who earnestly and ruthlessly seeks to instill in them respect and manners–that’s the tree of life. The message was clearest at those points, rather than the broad portrayal of the primordial origins of the universe and the subsequent evolution. Random natural images strewn about alongside those of the universe merely distracted from what would have been a phenomenally poignant film.
Maybe that’s why I’m torn. It should have been amazing. I loved about half of it, and the other half was an epic struggle between myself and my remote control, trying to stop myself from fast-forwarding through the excessive, self-indulgent digression.