Tuesday, 12 July 2011

The Tree of Life

There are some films that, even if you know virtually nothing about them, you know before the opening scene that you are going to be giving it four stars. I, at least, have had that experience every few years. So let’s get this out of the way before I start my review. The Tree of Life was always going to get four stars from me, no matter what. This will strike some people as illogical at best, utterly idiotic and nonsensical at worst. I understand. And I can’t really explain how I knew The Tree of Life was going to get four stars based on seeing only a few seconds of a preview and hearing a few very brief comments from Gareth. But I did know. I even knew that the obviously elevated expectations I had for the film would have no impact on my enjoyment of it. I just knew. It’s similar to knowing that if I ever get to see the Taj Mahal in person, it will take my breath away. Or to knowing that, despite knowing nothing whatsoever about them, no one could ever talk me into watching a Transformers film.

Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life is a profound work of art unlike almost any other. It did remind me immediately of Malick’s last two films (the great anti-war film The Thin Red Line and the fascinating The New World), and of course of Kubrick’s masterful 2001: A Space Odyssey, and of the recent Enter the Void, but The Tree of Life goes well beyond these films in its audacity: it boldly goes where no one has gone before, combining theology and science and the meaning of human existence into a stunning visual and music-filled poem. This achievement alone is worthy of four stars.

I have said enough for those who haven’t seen the film: unless you require action or at least a plot, go watch it and then come back. Okay, you’re back, so now you know the film, which has very little by way of plot, is basically about Jack (played by Sean Penn as an adult and by Hunter McCracken as a child). Jack is a late middle-aged architect surrounded by the grandeur of the 21st century’s finest architectural achievements. But it all appears cold and lifeless. As in 2001, humans have advanced to great heights, but lost their passion for life and wonder. All Jack sees out of the windows that surround him is greed. Something (a search for passion and wonder?) drives him to reflect back on his childhood, to the days of growing up in small-town Texas with a father (Brad Pitt) who is both loving and tyrannical (a God of compassion and punishment?) and a mother who is gentle and forgiving. The younger Jack is in those confusing years of adolescence when he both hates and adores his father, when he is jealous of his brothers and capable of both cruelty and kindness towards them, when the world is full of wonder and endless questions but also of confusion and despair. I suspect there are many of us who can relate to this. In poetic form, The Tree of Life captures this period of life magnificently, with the help of an impeccable performance by the young McCracken and one of Pitt’s very best performances.

The above paragraph makes The Tree of Life sound like a drama about family life. Do not be fooled, for it is much more than that. This is a film with numerous gorgeous scenes of space and a riveting scene involving dinosaurs. It’s so slow-moving that it barely moves at all and yet it covers the entire history of life, from the Big Bang to the day when we all meet again on some distant shore. And it does so from a uniquely religious (Christian?) viewpoint. It is a film about overcoming our natural tendencies and making grace central, about seeing life as responding to the needs of people around us rather than to our own, about what it means to be human and how we are all in it together. At least that’s what I saw. But since it’s a poem, it can surely be interpreted in many different ways.

I haven’t read many reviews of this film, but I have yet to see a reference to the Book of Job, which surprises me, since it is referenced at various points in The Tree of Life. My own interpretation is that, like the Book of Job, The Tree of Life is about asking why the world is such a confusing place, a place where the wonder and beauty of life are always forced to lie beside suffering, pain and tragedy and receiving the answer that God’s beautiful and meaningful creation is beyond our ability to fully comprehend. Perhaps the best thing about The Tree of Life is that it demands discussion. This is a film you will be thinking about and talking about for a long time because it will touch the very core of your soul. Yet another reason that it must get ****. My mug is up and its contents sublime. Don’t miss it on the big screen, if you can help it.


  1. I too enjoyed this movie a lot, and agree with your comments, though I don't have the same familiarity with Malick's earlier work as you do. I also agree that it demands discussion.
    Not a review exactly, but if you're interested, this was my take on it some weeks ago (I mention Job!):

  2. Thanks, Dora. I appreciated, and agreed with, the comments on your blog. I think The Tree of Life is a film that needs to be seen at least twice and I am hoping to see it again next week.

    BTW, Walter and I very much enjoyed your recent novel, which told a story we were familiar with (one of our aunts, who came to Winnipeg after WWII).

    Thanks for reading.