Thursday, June 23, 2011

Tree of Life

Terrance Malick’s Tree of Life is a film founded on immense contradiction. It is at once vast and yet intimate, loud and yet quiet, poetic yet human, spiritual yet scientific and ultimately concludes with maybe the only truth that we can ever really know: that life, existence, the world, the universe, everything, is itself founded on contradiction. Without hot is no cold, without day is no night and vice versa on until time runs out. No matter what wall one comes upon on their journey to whatever, they are always at the mercy of the antithesis and the only way to know what is right, not in some grand finite way, but rather a personal, individual way, is to grow and change through experience. That's what Tree of Life shows. Simply put, it is a masterpiece.

The next logical thing to do would be provide a description of the story. But how can one even begin? Anyone who is familiar with Malick’s work knows that he is a filmmaker who feels stories as opposed to telling them. His films, for the most part, are a colleague of images and words, jagged angles and beautiful points of view. To attempt to describe them is to back them into a corner and label them as a standard routine in which a story follows itself from a beginning to an end. That’s not what Malick does. Like a poem, his films create feelings through the way they link ideas and images together to create some sort of higher meaning that, this time out, boarders on the profound.

I’ll try my best here. The film opens with Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien (Brad Pitt & Jessica Chastain) receiving word that one of their sons has died. The film then jolts us back to the very beginning of time as images of barren landscapes shrouded by majestic colours swirl around together. Fire erupts, oceans begin to flow, and dinosaurs walk the Earth and begin to take on human instincts. Evolution is in progress.

In the city is Jack, played by Sean Penn, the son of the O’Brien’s, now grown up and an architect. In a way that is more implied at this juncture of the story, Jack is in the midst of a spiritual crisis. He has found success as an architect but high above all the steel and glass he still sees God’s blue sky and amidst the concrete is His grass and trees.

The film then jumps back to when Jack is a boy growing up in small town America under his parents with his brothers, learning life lessons, rebelling, falling in line and genuinely feeling his way through life one success and mistake at a time.

Near the opening of the film Mrs. O’Brien is heard in voice over explaining that there are two ways to live your life. One of them is with grace because grace doesn’t care and doesn’t aim to please anyone; it can meld itself in any way in such that one is always at peace. The other way is through nature which is sturdy and rigid, never satisfied and always looking to better itself and find praise from others.

The initial suspicion is that O’Brien is talking about the difference between God and nature, claiming God to be all that is good. In time it can be interpreted that this is declaration is a reflection of the roles that each parent plays in Jack's shaping, who, to continue, each take on a form of our belief in God as both the ever loving creator and the remorseless punisher. However the film does not push God above nature or God the punisher above God the protector but delicately shows, over the course and two and half meditative hours, that, like everything, when blended together they shape and define an entire life, leaving Jack to declare “Mother, Father, you will forever wrestle inside of me.”

Over the course of the film we see Mrs. O’Brien being the loving Sheppard, tending to her flock, encouraging them to look to the sky and see God’s home. While Mr. O’Brien loves his family he is also hard working and believes in tough love in order to persuade his boys to grow up to be hard working men who can make a living and a name for themselves. In yet another contraction the film begins and ends with a spiritual crisis of both parents, realizing that to be defined by just grace or just nature is fruitless and will always leave oneself unsatisfied as only half a life will be lived.

The conclusion of the film takes place in what may as well be considered, for poetic reasons, Heaven. Here Jack finally realizes that he need not be defined by either Nature or Grace, mother or father, God or not, but that the definition in his life is created through all those who have passed through it and what their perspectives have taught him. The closing images of the film, including one of the most startlingly beautiful, shows a changed perspective in which Grace and nature have come together.

Roger Ebert has described Tree of Life as being like a prayer and that’s about right. It follows no conventional structure on the path to creating a personal link between a boy and God or, better yet, a boy and himself, which, depending on your religious belief, is the same thing. I use God for lack of a better word and because the film refers to Him as God, yet one needn’t be thrown off by such interpretations. This is a deeply spiritual film, not a religious one.

It is rare in this day and age that a film be so ambitious and so dedicated to exploring its own concepts in the way in which it chooses. Terrance Malick has been active in the film world for almost 40 years and has only delivered five feature length releases. His films are not for every one. Like a poem they require quiet reflection as their interpretation will be based on how the viewer engages with the images before them. But those who will afford it their time and patience will find themselves renewed by it. In a age of film where personality and singularity of vision doesn’t seem to be worth much anymore, Tree of Life is one of the last few movies we can justifiably call a masterpiece. It is a work to be embraced and savoured


  1. I've said it countless times and I'll say it again. There will never be a film like this in a 100 years. I think it is truly a film that is definitely in its own world and above anything that is traditionally defined as film or cinema. We don't have a lot of so-called masters working today and I will say this. Terrence Malick is right now the Grandmaster of Cinema.

  2. I hated it until you brought up the prayer comparison. In that context, it actually makes a whole lot more sense. Like somebody going to church longer than they expected, and digging around the crevices of their mind for more stuff to pray about. Because that's the only way I can explain the dinosaur thing.

    And, as always, only Terrence Malik can make a movie like that. And come out clean on the other side, no less.

    Or course, excellent review.

  3. Whole-heartedly agree. It is also interesting reading about this film from others' perspectives, as their interpretations only add to, rather than take away, the mysteries layered in this film. I don't think there are any wrong answers, if indeed, any definitive answers can be found. Somewhere, evidently, there is a 6-hour cut of this film (as well as another version that Malick is supervising that concentrates more of the evolutionary story), and if they ever show up, I'll be an enthusiastic viewer.

  4. Tree of life was magnificent and as you say ambitious, and left me with a calm peacefulness afterwards, worked on both a visual and emotional level, got me dreaming about my own childhood. I loved the words of wisdom that were whispered.
    I see what you mean how grace and nature could reflect the two parents, interesting, the film makes more sense to me now, thanks for the review ( :

  5. Void - Malick certainly does feel to be one of the last remaining unique voices from a generation that didn't stick their course. Of course Scorsese is in this camp as well but, despite how great a filmmaker, his voice isn't a singular as Malick's for better or worse.

    Simon - To me the dinosaur thing is both a representation of evolution and Christianity, the point where a species evolves beyond simple savagery and also shows compassion for it's fellow wounded creature.

    Yojimbo - It's always a risky thing with Malick. I don't think the extended version of the New World makes the film any more or less good and a 6 hour version would certainly be interesting to see just for the sake of seeing you've seen it but if there has to be a cut off point somewhere or else this movie could go on forever.

    Movies- Peacful is a good word for how it leaves you. It's a profound movie but in a small, touching, subtle way. This is certainly something that I hope is revisited throghout the generations like say 2001 was.