Movie Review: The Tree of Life

by Eric Melin on June 17, 2011

in Print Reviews

We are bombarded by moving images in every facet of our lives. There are video screens everywhere. The way in which audio and video are cut together in ads, TV shows, and online marketing these days has created a contemporary film language that’s like shorthand to us. It takes very little effort on our part to process the intent and meaning of a 30-second commercial crammed full of quick cuts, layers of sounds, special effects and onscreen titles.

That’s partially why writer/director Terrence Malick‘s new movie “The Tree of Life” feels so fresh and exciting and timeless at the same time. He’s not interested in putting film together in that way. Not even close.

Malick is known for movies with beautiful magic-hour cinematography, poetic narration, and a serene pace that encourages contemplation. Films like “Days of Heaven,” “The Thin Red Line,” “Badlands,” and “The New World” affect your mood. They are transportive. They are not passive viewing experiences. They take you over.

“The Tree of Life” has these same qualities, but it’s also Malick’s most personal and adventurous movie to date.

Simply stating that the movie is nonlinear isn’t enough. This is challenging, breathtaking, pretentious, and inspired filmmaking that pushes the boundaries of conventional storytelling to its breaking point. Above all, “The Tree of Life” is overflowing with truth — which is amazing considering that Malick favors a magical kind of  aesthetic beauty over gritty realism.

The film opens in complete silence with a glowing orange light. Is it the Creator? It isn’t too long before we realize we are witnessing the birth and evolution of the universe, from bacteria to dinosaurs to mankind. Malick’s boldness comes from the fact that very little forward plot movement is established before these long passages are introduced. Instead, open-ended existential questions are posed by young boy named Jack O’Brien (Hunter McCracken) in voice-over.

The main narrative thrust concerns Jack, now a well-off but unhappy architect played by Sean Penn, who spends most of his screen time contemplating his formative years in 1950s Waco, Texas while surrounded by threatening cityscapes.

Director of Photography Emmanuel Lubezki shoots the flashback scenes of Jack’s family with a camera that never stops moving to underscore his restlessness. In stark contrast to the city, Jack’s childhood is wide open, populated by trees, grass, sunlight, and laughter.

Brad Pitt is Jack’s taskmaster of a father. He’s also a failed musician trying to get rich by filing patent after patent for various inventions. He and his wife (played by Jessica Chastain) provide an idyllic household in which to raise their three sons, who are equal parts mischievous and warmhearted.

This portion of the film, interweaved throughout a much bigger universal picture, is the closest thing resembling a straightforward plot. These sequences unfold in an unforced, tranquil way rather than with the hurry of most modern filmmaking today. They allow plenty of time for pondering the big cosmic questions that are laid out on the table.

Rather than focusing on the traditional conflict/resolution pattern of most movies, Malick focuses on smaller moments — evocative slices of life that add up to a more complete picture. It feels like you are eavesdropping on the family, interpreting every pained look and unspoken feeling between parents and children.

Carefully observed in exquisite detail, this part of “The Tree of Life” seems at least partially drawn from the famously reclusive director’s own childhood in Waco. It also roots the audience emotionally, even as we begin to realize that it amounts to one tiny leaf in the grand scheme of the film’s ecosystem.

The themes played out in the microcosm of the O’Briens’ story are reflected in the many transgressive and visually stunning scenes that dominate in the first 30 minutes of “The Tree of Life,” although you may not realize it until the movie has ended.

Two and a half hours later, the entire experience of “The Tree of Life” begins to take shape. The movie exists in my mind as hundreds of memorable snapshots, each one illuminating a different aspect of our existence, from the highest level to the tiniest of details.

If you love movies, you owe it to yourself to see this in the theater on the big screen where there are no pause buttons or distractions. “The Tree of Life” is a true cinematic experience. Having seen the film only once, I’m aching to return and see how it affects me again.

Above is a sequence form the movie by visual effects genius Douglas Trumbull, who Malick recruited to visualize the cosmos WITHOUT USING ANY CGI WHATSOEVER. Instead, he and his team used chemicals, paint, fluorescent dyes, smoke, liquids, CO2, flares, spin dishes, fluid dynamics, lighting and high speed photography. (via Cinematography.com)

Eric is the Editor-in-Chief of Scene-Stealers.com and writes the Screen Stealers column for The Pitch. He’s President of the KCFCC, and drummer for The Dead Girls and Ultimate Fakebook. He is also Air Guitar World Champion Mean Melin. Eric goes to 11. Follow him at:

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{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

1 ewrann June 19, 2011 at 5:48 pm

Loved this as well. It’s the kind of film that needs to be felt rather than analyzed.

Didn’t appreciate hearing the explosions and rumbling from the Green Lantern screening next door…seriously…the print I saw was also beat up. Was hoping to see it in IMAX as they had initially planned but not sure any theater owners want to give up the space to it.

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2 Kate W June 19, 2011 at 9:17 pm

So, I used the pass I won tonight. My thoughts:

I loved the movie for a lot of reasons. I enjoyed the wide scope of it, but I liked that it could be interpreted as Jack’s thoughts as he mourns his brother on the anniversary of his death. When we remember someone who has passed, we tend to do it in a very universal, questioning our existence kind of way, as well as the poignant moments.

I really enjoyed Pitt’s character. So often in movies a father is either seen as good or bad, but here you could see very well that Father thought he was communicating love, and the son wasn’t getting the message. The style made it so easy to know and feel the characters, so you can understand, not just be told a story.

I loved the end, I felt like it would be a very comforting movie for someone who had just lost a family member. Malick took a stand, but didn’t contextualize it, so it was still open to interpretation.

However, while I really enjoyed the movie (I wasn’t so much entertained as I was transfixed by it), I felt it had some flaws. The Mother character fell very flat to me. Overly sainted. I couldn’t understand or relate to her (and I’m a mom). In fact, the absolute lack of female dimension left me feeling a little excluded. It seemed like Malick was subscribing to the whole “Mother/Whore” diatribe. The only other female in the film, the woman in Penn’s house, doesn’t even have a line. One the one hand, I understand the son worshiped his mother. But the beauty of the movie was the subtleties the audience could see that the characters couldn’t. When the dining room explosion happens, and she wrestles with the father, I wanted a slightly more sexual reaction from her. Nothing icky, just something to explain her attachment, give context to their relationship. That wouldn’t have been an ideal solution, but it would have been something.

I think that’s really my biggest complaint. Every frame could be on the wall in my house. The shooting was impeccable. The acting and characters, also. Really lovely. Thanks for the tickets!

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3 Eric Melin June 20, 2011 at 2:36 pm

ewrann-

Agreed, the only way to really analyze it is from a personal perspective and how it affects you, I was deeply moved, but I could see (and have read opinions from) others who were not. I would definitely pay extra to see this in IMAX. (I embedded a clip above of the cosmos stuff–NO CGI! Check it out to relive some of the magic.

Kate W-

I love what you said about how we remember. This is very much a reflection onscreen of the little snippets of memory that Jack recalls. There’s never a clear narrative to memories, just feelings and — as you said — broad strokes.

Pitt was fantastic. This may be his best performance yet; certainly the most well-rounded.

About the mother: Neither of the parents were complete characters–they were reflections of Jack’s memory. If he remembers his mother as the definition of grace, it’s completely fitting that she be depicted as such in the movie. There really aren’t many moments of the parents together that don’t have something to do with the children, if I remember correctly.

It would be interesting to watch it again and try to figure out how much of her inner monologue was portrayed vs. the other characters….was there any? It’s been a month since I’ve seen it, so back to the theater for me.

Thanks for your comments, you two!

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4 James June 20, 2011 at 4:09 pm

Haven’t had a chance to see it yet. Should come near me soon.

You might find this interesting.
Christopher Nolan and Fincher discuss Malick’s direction
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UVUXDn6hCY4

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5 Eric Melin June 20, 2011 at 10:39 pm

James- Thanks, I did see that. Wondering if that’s a sneak peek at one of the DVD’s special features. It is pretty awesome to see two contemporary greats pay their respects to Malick. Thanks for including the link!

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6 James June 21, 2011 at 11:22 am

That or the oscar campaign has already started lol. Yea I agree with you. Its nice to see other filmmakers, particularly contemporary ones pay their respect.

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7 paul david taylor June 21, 2011 at 12:13 pm

Saw the movie last night. At first, I hated it. But, the more I think about it the more the movie, or art experience, I have grown to respect it and like it more….It is a challenging movie that requires that you let go of traditional story telling and any sorts of linear time. It has some of the most beautiful scenes, but to me doesn’t come together to a complete traditional movie going experience. I can see this in a museum. It makes you think , and I think the more you think about it- the more you will respect what was done.

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8 James June 21, 2011 at 12:25 pm

Especially cause Nolan and Fincher aren’t big press guys.

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9 Eric Melin June 22, 2011 at 7:53 am

Paul- That’s a really interesting point. I have to admit, at times during the screening, I was fidgety and uncomfortable. Watching the movie and analyzing your enjoyment as it plays is one thing, but it certainly is something to consider once you are able to look at the whole and process it later. And without the nonlinear editing style, it wouldn’t have had the same effect…

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10 Xavier Robertson July 2, 2011 at 5:53 am

I really enjoyed it as well, just got back from seeing it, the only thing was the ending for me, I thought it was dragging a little too long (some people actually laughed when there was more film after they thought it was over). It was a little heavy on the spiritualism/returned loved ones/god watching over them implications at the end also. I think it actually comes in as my least favorite malick film (although that’s not really saying much against it as I adore all his films).

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