You are born, you die, and in between you make a lot of mistakes

Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life is a difficult film. It speculates, but does not clearly state. It admires a mother’s warm smile, the smallness of a newborn in its father’s arms, and the cosmic ballet of the universe as one in the same. In short, it is a film about everything, and it is just as grand in scale as you’d expect such a film to be. But the grandiose is presented only as context for the intimate, the little things that shape us, and that’s what makes this a Best Picture nominee.

I’ll admit to initially being turned off a bit by the aforementioned cosmic ballet, the birth of life, the dinosaurs (yes, there are dinosaurs). It all seems a bit much. But when the film began to settle on the O’Brien family, circa 1950, it all started to fall into place. Everything about this family — the film’s center — feels stunningly authentic and lovingly rendered. Sunlight poring in through windows, glasses of lemonade served in plastic cups with flowers on them.

We learn a great deal about this family with very little dialogue. We learn that the family has lost a son. We learn that the eldest of the remaining two boys (played as an adult by Sean Penn) resents his father’s affection towards his younger brother. Sometimes the father (Brad Pitt) is a little hard on the boys. His wife (Jessica Chastain) is warm and forgiving.

A great deal of time is spent with the boys running, jumping, and skinning their knees. It’s enough to make anyone who grew up in a middle- to lower-middle-class suburban family wistful. They make mistakes and learn things about themselves. They mature. The film is filled with whispered narration, “Mother, Father. Always you wrestle inside me. Always you will.”

Malick marvels at the world around him and how everything means everything (or nothing at all). He senses a bigger picture, but it’s too grand to put a finger on. There is a certain level of spirituality in the film’s final moments, Sean Penn surrounded by those he knew and loved on a beach, a white door leading to. . . somewhere. But one could certainly go the other way with it, acknowledging that we are the sum total of those who have touched us along the way.

The Tree of Life might be too big and too difficult to win it all this year. Or perhaps that’s precisely why it could? I suppose it all depends on whether or not the Academy is willing to reward a film for attempting to reach so far even if it can’t always grasp anything?

The Tree of Life is nominated for Best Picture, Cinematography & Directing

Kevin Mattison is co-editor of The Idler, as well as being an occasional film review contributor for Real Detroit Weekly, a filmmaker and videographer. You can follow him on Twitter at @kmmattison.

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