Movie Review: The Tree of Life
By Matthew Huntley
June 6, 2011

Angelina, I found another one for us to adopt.

If there’s one word that can’t be used to describe Terence Malick’s The Tree of Life, it’s “conventional.” Like most of Malick’s work, this one goes against the grain of traditional storytelling and becomes something unique and engulfing. To fully appreciate it, I’d probably have to see it again, though I’m confident I have a firm grasp on what it’s all about. Malick incorporates so many like and extended scenes together that the themes and messages become clear, and while his approach to the ambitious subject matter can be considered bold and admirable, it doesn’t always make for an exciting experience. But, an experience it is, and a thoroughly beautiful one.

At its most basic level, The Tree of Life is about a family coming to terms with the death of its middle child and the lasting repercussions of such a tragedy. One day, the mother (Jessica Chastain) is delivered a telegram that lets her know her son was killed in war (we assume it’s Vietnam). She calls her husband (Brad Pitt), who is sickened by the news and begins to recall all the mistakes he made as a father. In solemn voice over, both beseech God and cry out for reason.

Thirty years later, the family’s eldest son, Jack (Sean Penn), endures his own personal crises. He works as an architect in Waco and Malick uses multiple high and low angles to convey the status of Jack’s relationships and how, at middle age, he struggles to find meaning in the world.

The way I’ve described the story might suggest this is a star vehicle for Brad Pitt and Sean Penn, but in actuality their scenes only make up a fraction of The Tree of Life. Malick intercuts their stories with elusive, episodic scenes from Jack’s childhood, circa 1960s, in a small suburban neighborhood. As a boy, Jack (Hunter McCracken) often resorted to violence and aggression in response to his strict and overbearing father. These scenes do not unfold in the usual linear fashion but play more like memories and dreams, the kind our minds filter both consciously and subconsciously as we attempt to recollect and make sense of them.

Complementing the human coming-of-age tale are images of the greater universe and developing world, which should come as no surprise since Malick is a director who loves the rawness and beauty of nature. They reminded me, as they will no doubt remind many, of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, as we observe the changing cosmos without the influence of man. From the sun rising, to a volcano erupting, to the ocean’s waves crashing, to the planets converging, we see how the dynamics of a typical family unit exist elsewhere in the universe’s other relationships, be they living or inanimate. Perhaps Malick wants us to see that all relationships are cyclical and have more or less remained constant for millions of years, as far back as the dinosaur era. He shows us these images over and over again, sometimes to the point of exhaustion.

What’s the point of it all, you ask? I cannot say for sure, but my theory is that Malick believes the way we relate to our loved ones is not random, but rather a product of nature, and that our feelings are bound by forces we can’t control, let alone explain. To me, the film argues we do not choose who we love, and therefore we should simply accept them and resist the urge to fight. The film makes it clear that any two things in a relationship first bond, then break apart, and then humbly reconnect before restoring harmony.

Whatever Malick’s actual goal, he pours it on rather thick. There were moments during The Tree of Life when I grew tired, and despite how beautiful and ambitious the effects and photography were, they weren’t always stimulating. It’s not that Malick is pretentious, but he may be too in love with his own artistic vision, so much, in fact, it prevents him from trusting us to interpret the film on our own and draw our own conclusions. By constantly bombarding us with the same types of images and themes, it’s almost like he’s telling us the film should only be read a certain way. But this is a case where the old adage “less is more” would’ve come in handy, because if 20 minutes were trimmed from this film, it would have been much that much tighter, effective and ambiguous. As it is, it leaves us a lot to think about, but I think it could have left us more by allowing itself to be open-ended. By overexerting us with the same images and dialogue, each asset takes on less meaning.

If there’s one thing the film does extremely well, it’s the re-creation of those ineffable childhood moments that, when we think about them, put us right back in a specific time and place. They could be the times we fought or laughed with our siblings and parents; or ran around the entire neighborhood like it was our own back yard; or listened to crickets chirping on warm summer nights; or threw rocks into water just to hear the sound they’d make; or looked our parents and siblings in the eye after we caused them pain. Malick probably channeled his own childhood experiences to get this effect, but they feel universal and are recreated uncannily.

It may sound like I’ve written more of an essay than a review, but that’s because I’m not entirely sure how I feel about The Tree of Life. It’s a film that’s more interesting to analyze than criticize. On one level, I applaud Malick for continuing to go a greater distance than most directors and wanting to challenge his audience’s film-watching endurance, but on another, the film can be exacting and it’s easy to become disengaged while watching it.

I mentioned it’s a film I need to see again to better appreciate, but it’s not a film I necessarily want to see again. I responded to its images and themes, but I also lost interest in it the more it pounded these things into me. In the end, I was touched, frustrated and in a state of wonder. That combination of reactions makes it difficult to say whether or not you should see the film, especially if you’re seeking entertainment. But think about this way: how many other film make can you feel this way? The Tree of Life is definitely one-of-a-kind, but not always in the best or most fulfilling ways.