The Tree of Life

PhotobucketTerrence Malick is an odd bird. What can you say about a director who has made just 5 films since 1973? With an average of about one movie every 10 years, his films essentially become events. They are always in fact, feats of visual style. Carefully planned, almost fussily produced works of art that bear the auteur’s stamp in every frame. The Tree of Life, for better or worse, is no different.

A disheartened man (Sean Penn) mourns the loss of his younger brother R.L. as he reflects on his childhood and his familial relationships. The connection with his father proves to be the most gripping. Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt) is a stern man, borderline abusive. Ruling with a authoritarian hand, he possesses a domineering personality, but at times a loving one as well. The interaction between him and his three sons, particularly Jack, is what drives the exposition. Actor Hunter McCracken, who plays the young Jack is a mesmerizing presence. He’s all intensity – respectful, afraid, and angry. A permanent scowl across his face that hides a deep-seated fervor. It’s a seething performance and is the heart of the picture. These scenes are especially effective because we see the world through Jack’s eyes. On the other end of the spectrum is Mrs. O’Brien, the boy’s mother. Played by actress Jessica Chastain, she is the exact opposite of her husband. Sweet, gentle in nature she, a woman who is nurturing and dedicated to her sons, but regrettably silent when her husband treats them harshly. The scenes regarding his family are intimate in nature and the most emotionally affecting.

“The nuns taught us there were two ways through life — the way of nature and the way of grace. You have to choose which one you’ll follow.”

The mother whispers these words at one point. She has chosen grace, loving and caring. She is a permissive woman, gently nudging her boys, but never attacking. The father, on the other hand, is nature, specifically survival of the fittest. He is a frustrated man, unable to get ahead in his job, filing patents for various inventions. He struggles with the idea that he hasn’t amounted to more in life. In the storyline’s arrangement, his parents clarify the adult Jack, his chilly modern day existence as an architect coming to terms with the death of his younger brother.

But Terrence Malick’s objective is much grander than to tell a simple story about this 1950s family. Early on, even before we can contemplate Jack’s reminiscence which forms the central focus of the film, the chronicle cuts to a dramatization of the development of the universe. Galaxies are formed, volcanoes erupt, and microbes evolve. These ultimately give way to dinosaurs in a visually interesting but perplexing display. The whole episode is about a third of the picture and while reflective and hypnotic, it’s also pretentious. This illustrated, nonverbal adventure is all very 2001: A Space Odyssey. But where that sci-fi classic’s elaborate additions to the story seemed fundamental, here they feel indulgent. I suspect Malick’s intention is to put our modern world into context. The human experience as it relates to the environment and our small place in the cosmos. We’re all but mere blips in the spacetime continuum. I suppose it gives some perspective. But by starting with Jack as an adult man and then awkwardly introducing this prehistoric fantasy montage before presenting Jack’s youth, it feels like another completely separate film.

Make no mistake, the cinematography is stunning and the music throughout is gorgeous. The arrangement can make a scene where the mother sets the table look like a fastidiously performed ballet. Couple these images with thoughtfully selected music and the effect is exquisite. These meditative choral pieces, requiems, and slowly building classical compositions are carefully chosen from the likes of Respighi and Smetana. They serve to underscore the weighty, but incoherent narrative.

In the end, Terrence Malick’s work can be enjoyed as a reflective mood piece on the human journey from newborn to adult. Growing up and reconciling who we were as a youngster to the person we are today. A cinematic puzzle, it’s a hard movie to define and it’s a ponderous one to get through. Despite winning the Palme d’Or at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, it received a polarizing reaction. It’s obviously a deeply personal statement for Malick. He himself was born in Waco, Texas and that is where much of the 1950s scenes were photographed. The juxtaposition of the past with the present day and then contrasted with the beginning of time is a way to introduce the human condition as it pertains to one man, namely Jack. Pondering not simply his own life, but his place in the universe and with God. This point is ambiguous, so what you take away will be what you bring to it, culling from your own personal experiences and beliefs. I reckon this movie will resonate much more with people who grew up in a family where the archetypes of the stereotypical 1950s family ring true. I found it somewhat difficult to identify with young Jack. Although there were aspects to the way a child sees the world that I could appreciate, his experience was not my experience. I couldn’t make the emotional leap that I felt was required to truly love the film.

15 Responses to “The Tree of Life”

  1. I didn’t understand a lot of the movie, however, I really enjoyed the family scenes. I give it a positive review , but was left feeling….confused.


  2. I’ve said it many times before, Mark, but I’m a huge fan of your reviews. It’s great that you’re writing longer, more insightful ones. This was an excellent read for me and it made me want to see The Tree of Life even more. Being a very big fan of both Brad Pitt and Sean Penn, I’m curious to know what you think of their performances in this film…


    • Thanks Fernando. Brad Pitt was excellent. I thoroughly enjoyed his performance. Sean Penn never speaks except in voice over narration, however. His acting is most made up of despondent looks. That’s not his fault. It’s just that Penn wasn’t given enough to do in the film to make more of an impression.

      I’ll be interested to hear what you think of the movie after you see it.


  3. magnolia12883 Says:

    I still look forward to this film next weekend – a proper end to a term of ponderous, spiritual cinema for me…Sorry you didn’t enjoy it as much as you could’ve


    • I had a mixed reaction, but there are things about this film I loved. You could tell a lot of work went into it. I can respect that.


  4. This is one of your best reviews yet Mark. I couldn’t agree with you more on every single point you made. It did feel like separate films, and yes, the montage of the creation of the universe et all was completely self indulgent. I almost fell asleep during this section. You’re also right in that one will nonetheless take from the film based on their own personal perspectives. I see a family centered around a narcissist father and the resulting psychology, ergo the intense isolation, loneliness and desire to connect, in this case, and receive his acceptance and love from his parents. The score was the most impressive to me as it was melodically haunting and yet nostalgic at the same time which really framed the cinematography and emotions of the story line very well. The key player in this movie that really drove the heart, and pain, was the young actor who played Jack. The intensity of his constant scowl marring those beautifully long lashed green eyes portrayed such angst, isolation,desperate need to be loved by his father, etc that was on the verge of explosion created a constant tension throughout the family drama portion of the movie. Definitely was a heavy film.


  5. Hi mark! i work with Ruben. I thought you covered pretty much everything in your review and i agreed with a lot of what you said. it was a strange movie, but i fully enjoyed it. great job


    • I heard you like indie films, so it’s always nice to hear the opinion of someone who likes that kind of thing. I certainly do. Definitely a difficult film, but it can be a rewarding one too.


  6. the music for this film is as impressively grand as the cinematogrphy. However the scenes of creation were by far the best part of this movie. From Wikipedea I gather there is a film that uses and expands these scenes. I would love to see it.
    This film, The Tree of Life” was not completely incoherent, yet I wish I knew about the boy with the head wound, or who had drowned, or how the younger brother died. Since he had been 19 and a telegram was received, I thought it might have been in some war situation.
    I didn’t feel the end was reconciling youth with adulthood. I was as much in the dark at the end of the film as in the beginning how the protagonist felt about his life. Perhaps it was plotting resignation. I was left feeling disappointed. I desired more resolution.
    I thought the “Heavenly” scene was the most inconclusive as to the protagonist’s emotional progress, acceptance, understanding, or what?


  7. Wait a minute. You guys must not have been paying attention. Everything ELSE in this film was about as cut and dried as “The Bad News Bears”. But how did you figure out the guy was an ARCHITECT?

    P.S. you think somebody may have seen Koyaanisqatsi once too often?

    P.P.S. actually, Mark, you hit it pretty much on the head.


  8. I just saw To the Wonder last night. Please don’t waste your time with it, and this is from a fan of The Tree of Life, Ben Affleck, Rachel McAdams…


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