‘The Tree Of Life’ – Movie Review

This outrageously ambitious film from director Terrence Malick begins modestly enough: a mother (Jessica Chastain) receives a telegram from the military advising that her son has been killed in action (presumably in Vietnam). Flashback to earlier days, the ill-fated child but a babe in his doting mother’s arms, and an unwelcome intrusion in the world of his first-born toddler brother, Jack.

There is nothing extraordinary about this family. They could be any family of the time, their home any suburban home in the American Midwest of the 50s. The head of the household (Brad Pitt) rules the roost. He has dutifully sacrificed his dream of becoming a professional musician to fulfil his male provider role, holding down a secure managerial position in a local factory. He is the stereotypical husband/father of the time, a decent man who makes the big decisions and expects his wife to abide by them. More than a stereotype, she is the archetypal maternal figure, endlessly nurturing and fiercely protective of her children. She is mostly willing to play the subservient wifely role expected of her, but rears up in protest when her husband’s stern fathering goes too far and traumatises the boys.

Jack, as the eldest, locks horns with his father from an early age, and this problematic relationship is a thread that runs through time, drawing the adult Jack (Sean Penn) back to his childhood as he sifts through his memories seeking…what? Resolution? Innocence lost in the inevitably brutalising experience of childhood? A temporary escape from the dehumanising and geometrically oppressive architectural steel and glass cage of contemporary urban corporate life in which he has somehow ended up entrapped?

Abruptly, from the realist opening on the small stage of the suburban Midwest of the 50s and the flash-forward to adult Jack in his corporate environment, the film shapeshifts stylistically into cinematic poetry and lifts off into another dimension – literally! It’s whacko, bewildering, and audacious beyond measure, as we zoom out to the edges of time and space, yea to the very moment of the Big Bang!

From the genesis of existence, we move through the expanding universe of stars to our solar system, and from there to the boiling volcanic surface of the new-born Earth. Then comes the cooling and the waters that form the oceans, womb to the holiest of moments – the creation of first life out of chaotically spiralling DNA. We track the evolution of that life into plants, and vertebrates, which eventually haul themselves out of the primordial soup on to dry land…

The combination of incredible camera work with CGI yields fantastic cosmic theatre on a grand scale. But in amongst all this spectacle there is one image of random violence that stands out as truly unforgettable – almost up with that of the ape throwing the bone that transforms into a spaceship in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. An injured dinosaur lies dying; another hops over to investigate, stares down quizzically at the prone form panting its last, and stamps on its head, pinning it to the ground. You assume this to be the action of a hungry predator, but rather than tearing at the flesh of its prey, it leaves the beast to die, hopping off into the distance in profound indifference, content merely to inflict a cruel act of dominance on its unfortunate victim.

Here we come to a theme that is central to the movie: the paradoxical co-existence of brute nature and spiritual grace that shapes all life, from the individual to the cosmic. Out of that theme arise age-old questions that go to the core of metaphysics, and that can only be approached in figurative or poetic terms. Is there justice? Is there divine justice? Is there a God? And if so, what is the nature of our relationship with him/her/it?

The answers are not always writ large. Back on the small stage of Midwest suburbia, which initially seems ludicrously trivial in the context of the epic cosmic journey we’ve just been on, young Jack and his brothers encounter a work gang of abjectly miserable chained prisoners in the process of being taken back to jail. Jack asks his mother, “Can that happen to anyone?” I do not recall what she answers, if anything, but the question has been ringing in my ears ever since. Not so trivial after all! Paradox is everywhere.

On another occasion, ruminating on the shocking burns scars of a peer, Jack puts a question to God that has resonated down through the ages: “If you do bad things, why shouldn’t I?” Out of the mouths of babes…

If Malick dares to cinematically imagine the beginning of time, is he going to be content to end this massive movie anywhere short of Armageddon? Well, I ain’t telling. What do you think I am – a spoiler? I’ll just say that I found the imagery at the end of the movie unaccountably moving.

It’s irrefutably admirable, of course, that a filmmaker should extend himself as Malick has here. Visions don’t come any bigger than this. Life, the universe, everything…what else is there? I think it especially courageous artistically that a director would attempt this movie in a time of pervasive irony, and thus knowlingly leave himself open to derision, lampooning, and charges of self-indulgence and perhaps pretentiousness.

Artistic courage aside, what of the film itself? Does it work? Yes and no.

In my view, the movie over-reaches itself and may justly be described as grandiose. Further, as spectacular an imaginative and technical feat as the cosmic theatre element is, its connection with Jack and his adult reminiscences and quest for meaning is not made sufficiently clear. I was lost in parts, but so intrigued – dazzled, in fact – that I wouldn’t have missed the rest of the ride. Thus, for me, the narrative coherence issue was problematic, but not a fatal flaw.

The writing is powerful. Much of the movie is accompanied by whispered voiceovers that could stand alone as poetry. Poetic prose, anyway. And you sense that the power of the writing, and indeed that of the movie, resides in Malick’s deeply personal investment in it all. Essentially, this work is the artistic and metaphorical embodiment of his anguished engagement with a God he is striving to understand, and we are the privileged witnesses.

The performances are all terrif. Jessica Chastain brings a wonderful maternal humanity to her role, and was the standout performer for me. Brad Pitt nails the emotionally under-expressed 50s father figure, decent to the marrow but misguided in his priorities, an unwitting victim of the times. Sean Penn doesn’t have enough to do, perhaps, but makes good of his limited screen time. The kids, all first-timer actors, are excellent, as kids always are.

What more can I say? Plenty, actually, but I’ve gone on long enough. Besides, this is a movie that, like any poetic work, is open to interpretation. My take will not necessarily be your take, and that is as it should be in any art of substance that grapples with the great unanswerables. The Tree Of Life or the Tower of Babel? See it and decide for yourself.

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7 thoughts on “‘The Tree Of Life’ – Movie Review”

  1. Rolan, I’ve been hanging out for your take on TTOL. I pretty much agree with everything you’ve said so all I can really add is that for me the question of why bad things happen to good people is better examined in the Coens’ A Serious Man – or maybe I should say more amusingly, less earnestly, though equally if not more interestingly examined. To contextualise humans’ quest for grace against the history of the entire kn universe doesn’t quite work for me – I think it’s legitimate to do so, but golly he does labour the point. Better to go the other way and consider it in the context of people’s interior stuff.
    I found the end moving too but resented it!

  2. Well, Karen, my turn to agree with everything you’ve said! I’d only add that the Job dilemma is central to A Serious Man, but just one of many lines of enquiry in TTOL, so I guess it’s inevitable that Malick is not going to come out well in that comparison. That’s one of the problems with biting off life, the universe and everything – mastication is not possible with a mouth that full and neither is proper digestion! Apologies for that appalling metaphor. I blame it on an oral fixation.

    Just curious: why did you resent being moved by the ending?


  3. Mm, because I thought it was sentimental godbaggery. I try to resist being sucked in by such stuff. But hell, I’m a mother, so waddya do. Tear up at images of families reunited after death on light-washed shores, apparently.

  4. Godbaggery? I have to confess, I had to look that up – have never encountered the term before now!

    OK, so here, Karen, we reach a point of disagreement, I think. I didn’t see the ending as necessarily pertaining to death or the afterlife etc. I thought it was deliberately ambiguous, but for me, it was a poetic expression of the Penn character – ‘adult Jack’ – attaining some sort of peaceful personal resolution of past and present. He appeared as his adult and younger selves, whereas all others were figures from his past, frozen as he remembered them. That would suggest to me an adult-Jack-orientated personal vision, wherein his age-related identities came face to face in some sort of peaceful co-existence with each other and his significant others from the past.

    If you accept this perception of the ending, just for a moment, is the charge of ‘sentimental godbaggery’ still applicable? I don’t think so…

    Incidentally, there’s another interpretation of the ending at this blog (the ‘spirit waiting room’ one), that I reckon is equally valid. Have to say, though, although this guy is a good reviewer with a great knowledge of film, this review typifies the hyperbole-driven rhetoric that is far too easily rendered today in place of a more considered and less enfevered critical assessment. How could a piece as overblown, grandiose and flawed as TTOL be considered a ‘masterpiece’? I say this as someone who admired aspects of it and bows to the massive vision that informs it. But really, the Big Vision overpowers the narrative and undermines its coherence, and that’s a serious problem in my view.

    I was also intrigued with Thomas’s take on the dinosaur encounter, which was opposite to mine, and insupportable on the evidence in my book. But there ya go…it’s all open to interpretation. And that leads to discussion and re-investigation or clarification of one’s own thoughts. Always a good thang.

  5. Ah, you are much more sharp-eyed than I am. I had no idea who all those other zombies on the beach were! Even if I go along with your interpretation of that scene, though, I still find it needlessly sentimental.
    My internal jury is still out on the dinosaur. While watching, I admit that when my companion whispered, “Bye bye dinosaurs!” when the meteor struck the earth, I replied, “Dang! Just when compassion had emerged!” But only moments later I changed my mind and thought that scene was about the randomness of fate and the indifference of its agents. Maybe another dinosaur will tear you limb from limb, or maybe it won’t be bothered, and you’ll live to be wiped out by a meteor along with all the others. Good times.
    Thanks for the link to the other review. Yeah, clearly Thomas C liked it a whole lot more than we did, but I do agree that it would reward multiple viewings, and that it will last. (Especially in film schools, I reckon, where you could have cracking tutorial discussions.)

    Okay, Rolan, next up, Mel Gibson and an unnameable rodent puppet … (Actually, are they – you-know-whats – rodents?)

  6. Yep – my intepretation of the dinosaur scene was close to yours (ie: your modified one). If the investigating dino had been acting out of compassion, he would have put the dying one out of its misery rather than stamping on its head, then hopping off leaving it panting its last (and yeah, dinosaurs probably didn’t think as far as euthanasing a dying peer). For me, trapping its head like that was an act of domination and cruelty, and a fairly random one since there was no food-hunting motive…and not unlike the way evolution apparently works. Your interpretation also works fine for me on the evidence. Damned if I see how the act could signify compassion in any way, though. Anyhoo…

    Yeah, missed a couple of previews this week, so Mel is next.


  7. I found the film the most washed over with religious kid of aura stuff that made me want to …GET out of cinema!! ..I find more meaning in the ordinary and every day..and do not want yet again to see American families doing their thing with their kids etc…its not a sensibility I am familiar with…its not how we felt/lived/thought/responded to one another in the 50’s here….why not bring in the pipe organs and get people to groan in exctasy…the lot of women in the 50’s or whatever has been dealt with in a whole lot better way in other movies..and much more subtly too…but gee if u like nice sunsets, american men being well yuk…as usual….u can go see it ..we nearly walked out..boooooring…better was Cococabana…and oranges and sunshine…see that film for moments where no speech/sunsets were required to say a whole lot of stuff about the human race…

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