Review: ‘The Tree of Life’


Once again after a while of not posting anything I’m pocking my head back in with a review for a film that I’m more interested in hearing what others think rather than telling them what I thought. That film being Terrence Malick’s fifth feature film “The Tree of Life”, which received the Palme d’Or at Cannes and has been receiving quite a lot of praise from critics. But is it all warranted? Well of course that is up to the viewer to decide, but here are my thoughts…

“The Tree of Life” is a mystifying and contemplative cinematic experience with a focus on the nature of good and evil, grace versus nature, god and his absence, love, grief, innocence, reconciliation and human existence all observed at times at a cosmic scale but mostly with intimate detail. Though far from containing a conventional narrative, the story within the enigmatic pondering of “The Tree of Life” revolves around Jack O’Brien, first seen as a wary middle aged man in modern times. He awakes one morning after he apparently dreams of his parents on the anniversary of the death of his brother who he loved deeply, a death that still troubles him. As he goes about his day working his corporate job the death of his brother weighs heavily on him. Jack then begins, as he has probably done countless times before, to search for answers to that overburdening question ‘Why? Why do we die and what is the purpose of life’. Questions asked in hopes to better understand his loss and reconcile his grief.

The search for the answer, which inevitably questions god’s existence, starts where one tends to look for something, the beginning. We are quickly transported to the very first moments of the creation of the universe and travel forward through time to the formation of earth, the dawn of living organisms at a microscopic level and eventually complex life forms. Next we get to the real center of the story as we witness the birth and childhood of Jack. All of this story is observed through Jacks memories of living in a small town in Texas during the 50’s. I believe it is very important to consider that these scenes are told through his memory and so contain a dreamlike and visceral atmosphere. We are not watching it play out as a narrative would in any other film, instead we get fragments of his childhood, each an individual memory strung together as they flow through Jack’s mind. The fact that these are memories also helps in understanding the view of his parents and the way in which they represent the sides of grace and nature to such extremes; as in Malick’s “Days of Heaven” one questions whether they are a true representation of the characters or just how Jack remembers them so many years later.

Jessica Chastain plays ‘Mother’, the way of grace, as a free spirited, caring and nurturing guide who teaches love, forgiveness and the enjoyment of life. The dueling force is nature, played incredibly well by Brad Pitt, as the disciplinarian father figure who runs his family with an iron fist in an attempt to instill toughness and a yearning for achieving greatness through any means. Together they reflect the inner workings of the cosmos and have a profound influence on Jack and at times he struggles to find a balance. As he grows he witnesses the harshness of the world around him, experiencing jealousy, lust, death and is often tempted by evil and sinful thoughts. At the same time however these struggles help him to grow and understand life and he comes to express a deep love and fondness for his family, especially his brother, though his mind still questions many things as it does for us all.

As expected with any Malick film the events in Jack’s life are not a direct depiction of reality, and Malick really doesn’t care much about their outcomes or how the story unfolds in a literal sense; instead what matters is making the audience experience these events through the inner mind and consciousness of the characters. As with his other work he relies heavily on voice over narration to convey the intimate thoughts of these characters , but this time they seem to be speaking for us and not just for themselves. All of this is constructed within a very visual backdrop with breathtakingly beautiful imagery utilizing lights, shadows, sounds, CGI, nature and settings with such perfection only a true artist like Malick could achieve giving even the most simple images complex meaning.

Together it is all truly poetry in motion and though it is a term I have used many times before it has never been more fitting. The entire film is unlike any other I have seen, one that will rattle your perspective on the world. Personally, the entire experience challenged me emotionally, mentally and spirituality; I’m not a religious man and I understand the examination of Christian values and Gods part in the story but the spiritualism at play I believe transcended religion or faith and although it looks to god for answers and at times tries to explain his actions, the thematic outcomes are open to so much interpretation that to claim you know the answer would undermine the films intentions. In the end there are no definitive answers; in the bigger picture of things we live but a small moment in time. One of the final scenes depicts what is seen to be ‘heaven’ but not in a literal sense. God does not show his presence, and it isn’t located among the clouds. One does not encounter angels and no answers are given, instead there are only the ones we love as we remember them. Heaven is merely the place within out hearts where we cherish the memories of the past and it is in those memories and through those people we live them with that we find a meaning and a reason to love and live. It is there where one finds true reconciliation, understanding and peace and by films end that is what Jack and the audience get.

“The Tree of Life” will undoubtedly divide the general film going audience. In the showing I attended I saw one couple walk out while at the same time as the final scenes began to play a woman in front of me was in tears. No one will be affected in the same way as others; those with no previous experience with Malick’s work might find the whole thing pretentious, difficult to understand and hard to sit through which is very understandable. Those with a bit of patience and an open mind will bear witness to what might possibly be one of the most ambitious, beautiful and best films in a very long time that will stick with you long after you leave the theater and will be discussed and analyzed for years to come.

For those of you who have seen the film, what were your thoughts and have you seen Malick’s previous work? For those that haven’t see it, do you plan to or did the trailer and whole idea of its structure turn you off?

11 responses to “Review: ‘The Tree of Life’

  1. If not for the fact that I stayed up way too late last night, me and my friend Jeff would have seen this film earlier today.

    I’ve seen three of Malick’s previous films — Badlands, Days of Heaven, and the Thin Red Line and, if there’s anything I regret, it’s that I was born too late to see these films on the big screen. However, even sitting in front of a tv screen, I was still overwhelmed by not only Malick’s imagery but by his ambition as well. To be honest, I respect his open-ended approach to filmmaking and I feel that there’s a very valid argument to be made that a Thin Red Line is the arthouse equivalent to the grindhouse surrealism of Jean Rollin and Lucio Fulci.

    (Lol, hopefully, somewhere, a snotty little film school grad is reading that and getting all outraged.)

    Now, if I have any reservations about Tree of Life, it comes from the fact that the trailer feels less poetic and more heavy-handed. In his previous films, Malick has show that he’s capable of turning images that might otherwise be overly obvious or pedantic into visual poetry. Unfortunately, the trailer would appear to emphasize the pedantic at the expense of the poetry (assuming, of course, that there’s poetry to be found).

    Anyway, I will be seeing this film as soon as possible, both because it might be a great film and also because I just can’t see it being the type of film that’s going to stick around for a long time. I know some people are talking about it as an Oscar nominee but honestly, the Palme D’Or would seem to indicate that this is the type of film that the Academy tends to steer away from unless it somehow becomes a populist hit.

    We’ll see. I’m keeping my fingers crossed for this one.

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  2. “Unfortunately, the trailer would appear to emphasize the pedantic at the expense of the poetry.” I can definitely understand that concern, and there are moments in which that may be the case, though I think it relates a lot to how you look at the images being shown and how or if they fit into everything else. Personally I think that though the visual imagery plays a much larger role than his previous work, not only does it work just as well but the story calls for it. Like I said in the review I think it should be viewed as if observing his memories of that time and place, down to very minute details, so there is a lot thrown together. It reminds me of times when I’ve thought back to moments of my childhood that stuck with me very clearly, so much so that when thinking back to playing with my friends one day by a stream I can almost recall the smell in the air, the sounds of bugs chirping, the sun reflecting through the trees, etc. and the character Jack recalls his past in a similar way and that is really what he are shown, and I can think of no other director better suited in doing that than Malick. So yeah…haha I can not seem to talk about aspects of this film without rambling on.

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    • I thought — and again, this is just the trailer I’m reviewing here so this is really kind of an academic argument until I see the actual film — that the scenes that were showing Jack’s childhood were the strongest ones in the trailer. Those were the ones that made me want to see the film and I’m sure some of that has to do with the fact that I’m from Texas and I’ve lived in the small town environment and, even though there’s a lot of difference between the 50s and now, small towns are small towns for eternity. 🙂

      I was worried, to be honest, by the parts of the trailer that seemed to be more obvious metaphysical. Plus, the “mother. father. always you wrestle within me,” voice over that shows up in the trailer just inspired all sorts of fears. However, I’ve seen Thin Red Line and even though I wasn’t totally sold on the voice overs, I still know that it’s something that Malick can handle if indeed he chose to use that technique in Tree of Life.

      The reason I’m enthused about this film is because it’s already sparked so much conversation on my part before I’ve even gotten a chance to see it. 🙂

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      • Oh yes, that line could and probably did cause cornea damage to people from rolling their eyes so fast, hard and often. And again I can definitely see why that would turn people off, a part of me was waiting for it to happen because I had heard others mention it after seeing the trailer and I thought not only did it work but if you view it all as memories you can sort of see it as less this young boy saying it but more the adult Jack trying to put a philosophical explanation to the internal struggle of his younger self, putting a more complex meaning to a simple situation as we sometimes do. As for the metaphysical part I would say I was pleasantly surprised by the fact that the focus of most of the film is just his childhood and those metaphysical aspects are more bookends to that central story, sort of setting up a question/idea, observing Jacks childhood/memories, then finishing with a “now how do they fit together?”, I think Malick constructed the whole thing perfectly…but I should stop rambling haha. Can’t wait to hear what you think of it because there is definitely be more to talk about.

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