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