The Tree of Life: Terrence Malick Reaches for and Beyond the Stars

Exiting the theatre, I was flabbergasted to hear so many harsh, rude, and uninspired criticisms about Terrence Malick’s highly ambitious film, The Tree of Life. However, it is understandable if one lacks the patience to make an effort in understanding the highly abstract and impressionistic images, as well as the non-linear narrative. From beginning to end you are working diligently to make sense of the visuals, searching for the deeper meaning, and trying to make sense of the prominent motifs, such as feet, water, and trees. There are also many juxtapositions that prompt you to think, such as nature versus the man-made world, indoors versus outdoors, and the sky versus the ground. There are so many things that happened in this film that I feel almost ill-equipped to assess it. I do not want to do it any injustice with my critique because I feel as though it is worthy of the highest praise.

The film is unlike anything you have every seen, and critic Roger Ebert stated that the last film to attempt what Malick has done was Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. There are many ways to read Malick’s film. Each shot can be interpreted as the way our memory works, short snippets of life the way you would remember it. I think this is where people got frustrated and confused. The purpose of each shot and how it suddenly changes to a different activity (like from crawling under a table to playing with blocks outside on the lawn) this is how one remembers childhood. I would be impressed to hear if anyone had full, concrete detailed memories of every moment in their life, and this is Malick’s attempt to summarize these brief, meaningful experiences as he transforms them into a thing of beauty. I feel sorry for the next soul who attempts to portray childhood in a meaningful and lovely way because Malick has already done it.

Playing with sparklers, definitely a great memory that is almost ubiquitous for children in North America

What I thoroughly enjoyed was how the computer generated images (which used 2001 technology rather than what is available right now, because Malick prefers it) followed a line from the beginning of time to the present of the characters lives. From the big bang, volcanoes erupting, cells separating, water flowing, the planet rotating, trees growing, dinosaurs wandering, and flames flickering, life is created and a new genre of film is born, one that does not cater to most individuals innate desire to watch a movie that has everything cut and dry. How boring!

God is a prominent intangible figure in the film, whom all the characters speak to and question when they want something to happen, when they are confused, when they are upset, and when they are thankful. The flickering light at the beginning, end, and throughout the film I find is symbolic of life can begin and end in an instant, never knowing when that flame is going to go out, and it is up to you to decide whether this higher power is in charge of blowing it out.

Sean Penn, who plays the grown up version of Jack, one of the three sons we follow from childhood, is constantly searching for his brother who died at the age of 19. We are never told how he dies, only that this had an incredible impact on the family and has affected Jack his whole life. He is constantly searching for him and this is where I found people got lost. All the image of volcanoes, rocks, deserts, water, trees, flowers, every little spec of nature that was captured, I feel that they were included to represent that we do not know where people go after death. They could be anywhere and be reborn as anything (if you believe in that). Jack has become an architect and when we are with him there are many shots that look up towards the sky or traveling up in the elevator of one of his buildings. It is only at the end, when he is on the ground, walking through a rocky landscape, that he smiles and realizes that when people die they do not leave you and reside in an unreachable place in the sky, rather they stay with you on the ground, among the trees, in the water, and they are a part of everything you do, everywhere you go.

Another thing I absolutely adored was how this film was shot. You think that filmmakers cannot possibly capture things that we have not yet seen before, especially images that are present in our reality, however Malick proved me wrong. At the beginning of the film when the parents Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien, played by Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain, receive news that their son has passes, the camera moves and grieves with them. It becomes disoriented and not everything is framed to perfection to help create this sense of feeling off balanced, the way their world feels as their emotions and hearts collapse. Also, every shot of the sky and various trees (which were in abundance) did not fail to impress me. They were strikingly beautiful, simple as well as complex. If anything, each image in this film that appears to be meaningless, random or unnecessary should be seen as a photograph and a piece of art. It is a collage of the birth of our world and our attempt to piece each image together in an attempt to find meaning.

Besides the beautiful visuals, the acting was also commendable. Brad Pitt is credible as an emotionally and physically abusive and demeaning father, yet somehow he is loveable. Jessica Chastain plays the mother the boys all seek refuge from, as she is a beautiful, loving, playful, and understanding individual, essentially the epitome of  what a mother is. Young Jack was also incredible to watch. Played by Hunter McCracken, this young man definitely has a strong and successful career ahead of him.

Hunter McCraken as young Jack

The concept of the term “the tree of life” is a multi-branched tree that illustrates the idea that all life on earth is related and I think Malick did a successful job in attempting to illustrate this theory. Whether you liked the film or not, you cannot disagree that it is one of the most ambitious movies to grace the silver-screen in a long time.


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