Saturday, September 17, 2011

Why See This...The Tree of Life [2011]

A historian’s record of the creation of earth and the existence of life may perhaps take volumes of and textbooks to explain.  Director Terrance Malick, on the other hand, manages to pull it off in a mere two and a half hours, or so it appears.  To say that The Tree of Life is built around answering the same questions that have given scientists trouble for centuries would be untrue, but given the magnitude of its images and ideologies, the case can almost be made.  The Tree of Life is Malick’s fifth feature film in a career spanning almost 40 years, something hard to figure for a Hollywood director.  Nevertheless, his reclusive tendencies and anonymous nature seem quite fitting for the premise of his latest feature. 
The Tree of Life opens with a quotation from the Bible’s Book of Job ("Where were you when I laid the foundations of the Earth, when the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?" Job 38:4, 7) coupled together with an image of a small flame representing its creator, God.  It continues onward interlaced with grand images of what appears to as the creation of the world.  Saying that the film’s setting is a quaint Texas suburb in the 1950s would be doing Malick a disservice.  The movie jumps back and forth thereon to images of creation, seemingly, a particular exterior shot of the world as we witness the Big Bang, the age of Dinosaurs and forward to man’s journey to eternal life.  From its premise in Texas, the movie centers around a typical suburban family- the O’Brien family, consisting of a sweet and sincere, stay-at-home mother (Jessica Chastain), a hard-working and stern father (Brad Pitt) and three adolescent boys who enjoy endless summer days playing under the sun.  At its core, it a movie about relationships, about love for one’s family, and about love for one’s own self.  In the beginning, we are told that one of the O’Brien son’s has died young, at the age of 19.  But instead of establishing a story around the loss, the movie jumps back 20 years to the three of them growing up together, reflecting on the existence of life, rather than the loss
What is central to the movie’s foundation is a statement said by Mrs. O’Brien early on the film as if preaching to the audience- “...there were two ways through life - the way of nature and the way of grace. You have to choose which one you'll follow.”  From that point on, the film seems to be a grand illustration of what the world is, why we exist and what becomes of us after death.  Answering these types of questions is difficult, even for Harvard graduate Terrence Malick, who was rumored to have begun writing the script in the ‘80s under an early title, Q.  What The Tree of Life does is leave more questions than answers at its end, which can leave audiences with an unfulfilling conclusion. 
The Tree of Life does not possess a conventional narrative like a typical movie would and often gets caught up in its own surrealistic images.  In fact, its inability to stay put in one place symbolizes the perplexity and abrupt beauty of life itself.  At the same time, however, this and a lack of narrative is a cause for the movie’s inability to reach out to the typical movie-going audience.  But as unconventional as it is, the film did earn top honors at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival winning the Palm d’Or. Head judge for the event, Robert DeNiro claimed that the movie had “the size, the importance, and the tension that seemed to fit the prize.” 
Rather than looking at the screen for the answers set forth by the film’s premise, Malick uses the grandiose imagery as a way into our own minds.  The film’s nostalgic overtone of the experiences of childhood, filled with laughter, love, curiosity and fear can lead each viewer to reflect upon his or her own life after the film’s end. Asking yourself whether you live by nature or by grace may not be the film’s purpose.  What it does leave is an understanding of the beauty of human existence as a whole, our job as viewers is to uncover that in our own lives.


  1. Good review! thanks for the follow, and welcome to the blogosphere ( :

    The opening quote from book of Job you mention I had forgotten about, sort of reminds me of Lars Von Trier's Antichrist, where nature/animals just look on and don't interfere, you could almost go so far as to say nature is uncaring.

    Yeah, the unfulfilling conclusion, music, and big scale reminds me of Kubrick's 2001: a Space Odyssey

    Did you check my review of The Tree of Life?

  2. solid post. As a more casual viewer that mostly didnt like it, you reminded me how the nostalgic parts of growing up struck a chord with me.