Review: The Tree of Life (2011)


People have labeled Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life a “love it or hate it” kind of movie.  To them I ask, what is there to hate?  Certainly Tree of Life is a divisive film, but the only people it should divide are serious filmgoers from the casual or the lazy.  If you only want to be entertained, if the only movie you have been looking forward to this summer is Transformers: Dark of the Moon, then do not see this movie, because it will not entertain you.  Actually, you will probably hate it.  I also openly admit that this movie will not suit the taste of every serious movie watcher.  Not everyone has to laud The Tree of Life as a masterpiece.  Criticisms should be voiced, annoyances allowed.  I honestly believe, though, that no true lover of film should hate this movie outright.  When we cinephiles regularly berate Hollywood for producing swill, should we not celebrate a big-budget studio film that is so bravely beautiful and unconventional?  Should we not applaud Malick’s daring and ambition to tackle the big questions? I find it difficult to process and analyse this film after only one viewing, so I am simply going to give you my first impressions and some later thoughts, and urge you to see it for yourself. 

The film is both intimate and incredibly vast.  It follows the life of one boy against the backdrop of the life of the universe.  We meet the adult Jack (Sean Penn), who still grieves and ponders the death of his brother, but Malick focuses on the childhood years of young Jack (Hunter McCracken) in 1950s suburban Texas, and how the boy deals with the opposing influences of his parents (Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain).  His father is stern and willful, but his mother is kind and gracious.  As we watch the life of the boy unfold—more often viewing the world from Jack’s perspective actually—Malick also shows us the creation of the cosmos, the evolution of organisms in the primordial waters, dinosaurs in prehistoric forests, and other wonders.  As Malick’s stunning vision expands and contracts, moving back and forth from the microcosmic to the macrocosmic, we witness the pain and beauty of life.

The film opens with a quotation from the Book of Job: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth . . . when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?” (NRSV 38.4,7).  Then we see what I presume to be a fireball of radiation, the Big Bang (“‘Let there be light’; and there was light”).  The Book of Job tells the story of a righteous man who suffers for no apparent reason.  After Job and his friends complain enough, God shows up in a whirlwind and basically says, “Who are you to question me?”  The theme of the Book of Job, the question of why good people suffer, is central to The Tree of Life, as Jack’s family grapples with the death of one of his brothers.  In the passage that Malick quotes, God is speaking to Job.  Interestingly, God avoids answering Job’s questions directly, and instead poses his own rhetorical questions, reminding Job of his place in the universe.  But, in the quoted passage, God also reminds Job of the beauty of the universe.  What is Malick suggesting?  That we cannot understand life?  That we should not try to?  That we are just an infinitesimal piece of the big picture, but that that picture is beautiful?  Wouldn’t that make us beautiful too? (I’m still working out how to fit Job into the film’s discussion of nature and grace.)

In essence the film is a poem not a narrative.  If we keep this in mind, it explains the incoherent plot yet comprehensible themes, not to mention why so many in the audience seemed bothered by the structure.  How many people do you know who read poetry?  This film is not confusing in the same way that Mulholland Dr. is.  The Tree of Life is not surreal; it does not try to represent the unconscious.  Malick chooses his symbols.  Malick and his team of editors consciously create visual metaphors by juxtaposing shots and scenes in order to say something.  Terrence Malick has carefully crafted a poetic film, or a cinematic poem, of astonishing beauty and staggering depth.

The Tree of Life explores the macrocosm of the universe and the microcosm of a human life, and the ideas of nature and grace.  That much I am sure of.  I still have so many questions though.  Is the nature-grace dichotomy ultimately upheld or dismantled?  Is that re-occurring image of swirling water a shot of a wave from under the water?  What does the field of sunflowers at the end mean?

What do you think?

9 out of 10

The Tree of Life (USA, 2011)

Written and directed by Terrence Malick; starring Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain, Sean Penn, and Hunter McCracken.