This film is not for everyone. In fact, (very) few would’ve been able to appreciate it. I’ve seen it twice, and I still couldn’t find a way to properly write about this film beyond saying that I had managed to find a soft spot to it, appreciate its beauty, relating to Brad Pitt’s character, and amazed by the performance of its young actors. Again, don’t get fooled by Brad Pitt’s name on its title card. If you came to theater, only because Brad Pitt was in it, it would be a mistake. Only attend this film if you’re at least familiar with Terrence Malick.
As a word of warning, let me put a quote from one of the film’s star, Sean Penn. I think it’s perfectly summed up what I had felt during my experience watching it twice at the theater, and having seen people making fun out of it, and walking away from it.
“The screenplay is the most magnificent one that I’ve ever read but I couldn’t find that some emotion on screen […] A clearer and more conventional narrative would have helped the film without, in my opinion, lessening its beauty and its impact. Frankly, I’m still trying to figure out what I’m doing there and what I was supposed to add in that context.” 
Emphasis of mine from that sentence. “A clearer and conventional narrative.” Of course, knowing Terrence Malick, this film is anything but. Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain are Mr. and Mrs.O’Brien a typical family lives in the suburb of America in the 50s. They have three young boys, one of whom, Jack (Hunter McCracken), the eldest was portrayed by Sean Penn when he was an adult. And I honestly can’t say anything beyond that.
As typical to Terrence Malick’s films, this film features voice-overs quite heavily. I was never a fan of voice-overs and, of all Terrence Malick’s films that I’ve seen, this one is his weirdest yet. It opens with a quote from the Book of Job, and as the film progresses, it throws questions about life (in a film titled, “The Tree of Life,” what else would you expect?), about God, almost (and probably is) to a point where I had half-a-mind that this film is Terrence Malick’s own meditation about God, life, and (gasp) religions. I found that these voice-overs are bit overwhelming and I was hard pressed to put it into the context.
Anyway, what I really liked from this film is the family part where young Jack, amazingly portrayed by Hunter McCracken (a guaranteed spot as Best Supporting Actor?), struggles through his adolescence years. Started innocently, and yet there were times when his rebellious nature, accentuated by his father’s figure whose stern, dominance, regrets but unyielding love that sometimes pushes the kid to his breaking point, seeps through and affected those around him. And boy, was it an ugly thing to watch. Even my wife couldn’t bear to watch it. In itself, that was a testament to Hunter McCracken’s ability to deliver a very convincing performance that worthy of at least a praise.
But as I’ve said earlier, I was more able to relate to Mr.O’Brien and it was a profound one. In my view, Mr.O’Brien is a flawed father. He never explicitly said about his regrets, but it was palpable. Sometime, somewhere, he had made a wrong turn that instead of becoming a great musician as he was once (and most likely still) coveted, he settles for a salary man. He wants nothing but the best for his family, and again, although he never explicitly said it, he hates himself for doing a half-assed job at it even with him giving up his dream and all. That is exactly what I really had in mind as a would-be father myself. I wanted nothing but the best for my family, but I had a dream of my own. And this dream, I never really sure that it would take off or not, and therefore afraid that I’m going to hate myself for not able to giving out the best for my family even after compromising by killing the dream that I had. I was afraid that I would, just like Mr.O’Brien did, unknowingly lashed out my frustration for being a failure, to those closest to me. To my family.
In the end, I was afraid that I’m going to turn into Mr.O’Brien. Settled for a simple, non-accomplished career, and stored my dreams away in a dusty corner somewhere. Fortunately, that last chapter of mine has yet to be written and I’m still trying to pursue my dream. My wife, God blessed her in so many ways I couldn’t even begin to recount, had given me her a hundred percent support and with no kids in tow, I think I still had time to walk through my dream to see if it actually means something, or if it’s just that, a dream.
And in that sense, this film has a tremendous impact for me personally. It was a beautiful film, lush with colors, as typical to Terrence Malick’s films, and a message that many of us would probably ignore, but to some of us, it probably means something. It does means something to me.
As for the Sean Penn’s part himself, I had to agree with his very own assertion. I still can’t find the reason of him being there aside from providing a somewhat self-mediated, probably almost religious context.