NOTE: This spoiler was submitted by Scott S, who says, "...there’s maybe 15 minutes (maybe less) of dialogue within the 133 minute long film..."
The film takes place during two periods of time: The 50s and present day. In the 50s, we bear witness to Jack, an 11-year-old boy living with the Midwest with his two brothers, a loving mother (Jessica Chastain), and a stern, yet loving, father (Brad Pitt). As stated via voiceovers (more dialogue in the film is through random, somewhat vague voiceovers than actual dialogue), there are two ways through life: nature (represented by the father) and grace (represented by the mother). The mother wants the kids to feel love, freedom, etc.. The father, a failed musician, wants the kids to be able to stick up for themselves and brace for the horrors of life.
Fast forwarding several years into the future (either 50s or 60s), the family receives notice that one of Jack’s brothers was presumably killed in some sort of military unit. The mother breaks down upon hearing this, and the father regrets being too harsh on his son.
Now we move forward to the present day with an adult Jack (Sean Penn) living with a woman (it’s never clarified if it’s his girlfriend or wife, but this is not important), clearly miserable with each other. Jack works as an architect in some sort of high-ranking position and has a constant look of general confusion throughout his daily activities, as if he’s lost in the world. After a very brief conversation with his father over the phone pertaining to the anniversary of his brother’s death, he sees visions of his younger self in an ocean, and we see images of adult Jack roaming a beach.
Then the film shifts to a stunning visual representation of the creation of the universe. We go from a spark to the big bang, to the creation of earth, to the creation of the first organism, to the organism’s evolution, to the age of the dinosaurs, and everything in between. We witness a meek dinosaur being bullied by a stronger, vicious dinosaur (a Velociraptor?), who steps on its head, only to then walk away, letting the smaller dinosaur scamper. Then a meteor destroys the Earth.
The film moves to Jack’s birth, growing up from infant to toddler, the birth of his brothers, and his continued growth until he hits 11. During this extended montage of growth, Jack learns the harrows of death when a friend drowns and people are unable to save the kid. Jack is also taught obedience by his increasingly stern father, who orders Jack to call him father instead of dad, teaches him lessons/manners via chores and acts of tedium. This conflicts with the mother’s point of view at times, especially when one of the younger brothers talks back to the father, who then grabs the child and places all children in isolation. The father tells the mother she is undermining everything he’s done. In another scene, she tries to hit the father, but he violently grabs her and prevents her from doing so, showing that she fears him and disagrees with him at the same time.
The father, an owner of 27 patents, unsuccessfully attempts business of sorts in his hometown (or was it a court case? This wasn’t really made clear, but he failed in one way or another pertaining to his side business), and goes on a trip around the world. When he’s gone, Jack becomes more mischievous. We see him mock his father, break windows, break into his rich neighbor’s house and steal a dress (only to float it down the river out of remorse/fear), shooting his brother in the finger with a bb gun, and a number of other things. The mother witnesses this and realizes Jack is starting to take the negative aspects of his father, pushing her away from him. The father comes back, having failed to secure any business. He finds out that his workplace (some sort of industrial plant) is shutting down, and he has the option of either not having a job or moving and taking an undesirable job. He chooses the latter. Seeing himself as a failure, the father talks to Jack and apologizes for being so harsh, and that he wants him to do better than him (something that was repeated earlier in the film). The family packs up, drives away, and young Jack seems at ease with the whole process, reflecting on his years at the house he lived in.
The movie moves again to the present day Jack, having seemingly come to grips with his childhood (I think). The rest of the film is entirely open to interpretation: it switches back and forth between scenes of Jack walking through a doorway in the middle of a dune, shifting to a beach with everyone from his life (mother, father, brothers, neighbors, people from church, etc.) and some beautiful (yet seemingly random) images interspersed within the scene. The last image of the film, after adult Jack meets with his father, mother, and his younger self, is of a bridge, and the credits roll with absolutely no music for about a minute.
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