And God said, let there be Malick, and there was Malick. And God saw Malick’s Tree of Life, that it was good. Winner of the coveted Palme d’Or at Cannes, Tree of Life—a film about creation, life, suffering, death, and the meaning of life—is only Terrence Malick’s 5th film in 38 years. So it goes without saying that Malick is anything but prolific. His most ambitious and experimental film, Tree of Life feels like an art film, especially the first 45 minutes and the last 20. Of course, Malick disregards conventions in all of his films. From Badlands to Days of Heaven and now to Tree of Life, his films scream idiosyncrasy, independence, and romantic imagination. They are all—whether you like them or not—powerful artistic statements about what it means to be human.
The story (if you can call it that—there’s not much of a plot here) takes place in Waco, Texas. Jack is the oldest of three boys growing up in the 1950s. Tragedy strikes, and Jack grows up to what appears to be an architect (it’s never quite clear), a lost, alienated man living in a modern world that boxes him in tall skyscrapers, empty boardrooms, and glass elevators. But Malick is more interested in fleeting images of domestic life, waves crashing, volcanoes erupting, and the sunlight shining through trees than he is in telling a story about Jack’s family, so there are lots of gaps here. Like the French director Claire Denis and her predecessor late-19th-century-painters Monet and Manet, Malick’s work is aptly called impressionistic. Malick provides us impressions of life and nature in the film. Snapshots in a photo album that serve as an aesthetic counterpoint to the realism or stylized realism presented in most films. But his work might just as easily be labeled expressionistic since he uses the music and images to express his inner emotions and ideas about modern life and its complexities.
Regarding its cinematography, Tree of Life contains possibly the most beautiful images ever put to film. Ever. Bob Mondello of NPR said, “There's not a frame of The Tree of Life—not one—that I wouldn't love to have hanging on a wall in my home.” But I would go further and say that watching this film is like walking through a museum and gazing awestruck at a van Gogh or a Vermeer. One of the most visually striking shots utilizes an upside-down camera to frame several distorted shadows of boys playing, possibly a metaphor for the darkness within our souls. In the scenes from our modern world, the camera almost constantly tilts upward, looking through the glass roofs of modern buildings, looking to the heavens, searching for an absent God, searching for hope. The beautiful images and sounds (we hear selections from Bach, Brahms, Berlioz, Mahler, and others) are so powerful that we can’t help but feel the spiritual power while we watch. But for Malick the transcendence is not a result of religion; it’s about the sacred in the secular, the sacred in nature. There are also lots of gorgeous images from the Hubble telescope when Malick flashes back to tell the impressionistic story of the creation of the world. In my view, these early creation shots, though beautiful, went on too long and were pretentious, but this is a minor complaint in an otherwise powerfully affecting film.
While the cinematography is probably the most memorable element in the film and I was left with lots of images seared on my brain, the acting is nothing less than astounding. It depicted convincingly realistic portrayals of sibling interactions, and mother-child, father-child relationships. Much of the emotional impact rests in the hands of a pair of wonderful child actors, who are natural, raw, and real. This is probably Brad Pitt’s strongest performance, too, and Jessica Chastain, who plays the mother, is also excellent. In a whispering voiceover, Jack says, “Father, mother, always you wrestle inside me,” and I suppose the parents are meant to represent polar forces in our world. The yin and yang of nature and society. She is ethereal, soft, luminous, smiling, watchful, full of what she calls grace. There’s even a scene of her floating and dancing in mid-air. He is earthy, loving but hard, driven, intellectual, stern, and sometimes explosive like the volcano we see in the early days of creation. Walking on the grass and teaching his son to tend the garden and lawn, he connects himself to the earth and savors his time treading on land, even though he works in aviation and aspires to soar to the heavens like Daedalus. He demands respect and wants his sons to love him. But for him respect is more important than love. He also wants his sons to be strong and hard, prepared for the real world, and in one scene encourages them to punch him in the face. They merely stand and stare.
There is no easy-to-comprehend message in this film, which is both frustrating and fascinating. You have to work pretty hard at figuring things out. And even after thinking about it for a while, the answers will probably still be out of reach. But this is typical of Malick’s films. He’s a skeptic who is not really sure about answers to life’s big questions, so he is certainly not going to simplify things for his audience.
The ending feels incomplete and in many ways it is dissatisfying, but I suppose that’s part of the point. We only get a series of snapshots from this family and we are left to fill in the blanks on our own. We can’t and won’t ever have all the answers to everything. We can’t know all of the beginning and the end.
Here's the official trailer from Youtube:
Here are several other takes on the film, both positive and negative and in between:
Wesley Morris's slightly negative review from the Boston Globe.
Bob Mondello's review from NPR.
Kenneth Turan's negative review from The LA Times.
A.O. Scott's positive review from The New York Times.
Anthony Lane's positive review from The New Yorker.
Todd McCarthy's review from The Hollywood Reporter.
Roger Ebert's review from The Chicago Sun-Times.