The Tree of Life

         Early on in Terrence Malick’s newest film The Tree of Life, Brad Pitt’s character (named Father) wakes up his three boys and takes them to their church, where he plays a huge pipe organ in the seemingly endless sanctuary. As the music plays, Father’s oldest son Jack (played by an excellent Hunter McKraken) smiles. And then, for an instant, the film switches its focus to a sandstorm moving across a desert. And then, before you know that the image has changed, the focus returns to Jack and his father’s organ playing.
        It wasn’t until this moment that I believed in The Tree of Life, and in the direction that Terrence Malick seems to be heading.
       And what direction is that? It’s hard to describe. The film lies somewhere between 2001: A Space Odyssey and McCabe & Mrs. Miller. Which means that those of you with a short attention span may want to look elsewhere. It moves slow. But I will say that the pacing is much, much faster than Malick’s previous effort The New World, which many people consider unwatchably dull.
       Although, when I talk about pacing, some people may confuse that with plot. So I’m going to get this out of the way early. There is no plot. There is no point A trying to reach point B. In fact, the film seems to be in direct opposition to point B. There are just moments. Hundreds of moments. These moments are linked together by a free-associating mind. For example, when the young boys are shown walking like their legs have been broken, moving side to side as if on a ship during a storm, the film cuts away to a man whose physical deformity forces him to really walk this way. We cut back to the kids, but it’s a different day, and they feel guilty–maybe because they’ve insulted the man, but maybe not. Maybe because they’ve just watched a man get arrested.
         “Could that happen to anybody?” Jack asks. But what is it he’s afraid of? The film has shown us a man with deformed legs, men being pushed into the back of a police officer’s car, and another man who seems to be having some sort of a seizure, since the last time we’ve seen Jack’s face. Is he asking about all of those things? Does it matter?
        I suppose it only matters if you’re trying to find a plot. There are many opportunities for you to try and decipher one, but I don’t think you’ll have much luck. It’s better to just watch the movie as if you’re watching a dream. It’s best to watch it the way you would watch 2001: A Space Odyssey, perhaps the only other American film to work on such an ambitious level.
A Screenshot From the Film

The closest thing to a synopsis that I can give you is the movie is, essentially, a series of questions and attempted answers. Like Kubrick’s film, The Tree of Life works more like an essay than a narrative. While 2001 attempts to answer questions about progress and technology, The Tree of Life attempts to answer why God seems so distant, and why people never seem to get what they deserve. In fact, it seems that the entire movie balances on a single question, “God, how could you let my son die?”

       This question, asked very early in the film, sends the audience through millions of years of evolution. Where was God? Well, as the quote from the book of Job shown before the start of the film asks, “where were you when I created the heavens and the Earth?”
      These two questions wrestle with each other for the duration of the film. We’re treated to huge, momentous events like the creation of the sun, and small, microscopic ones like the way a small child looks at his baby brother. No event is treated as more important than the other. In this film, everything is treated with a sense of balance. A dinosaur crushing another dinosaur’s head into a rock is presented with the same curiosity as a young boy smashing his neighbor’s window.
     Malick seems to be saying that all of these things are of equal importance. Or, that they are at least similarly ranked among what is important in the cosmos. The juxtaposition, for the most part, works quite well.
     The movie’s problems lie in runtime and focus. While there is no plot to speak of, there is most definitely a focus. However, throughout the lengthy prologue and epilogue, the focus is somewhat diminished. Match the aimless epilogue with the film’s 157 minute runtime, and you can guess that this movie may not be for everybody.
     But I encourage you to stick with it. Especially if you are a fan of Terrence Malick’s previous work. You’ll appreciate the absolutely brilliant imagery, the haunting musical score, and what is perhaps Brad Pitt’s best performance so far in his career.
     I feel like I have more to say, but for right now, just know that this a movie that isn’t for people who say, “that movie was too weird” and it is not for people who say “but what was the point?” This movie is for those of you who smile to yourself whenever you hear somebody say those things.  And to those of you, enjoy the show.

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  • I agree. But I would say this movie has plot. That is, it has just as much of a plot as I have a plot, which seems to be what Malick was going for (I mean, it is called the Tree of Life). And I think that might be way this movie is such a turn-off for people. The movie might be too reflective of real people's lives.

  • A very nice explanation of how to enjoy the film- like a dream. nice. and also- 'Ooooohhh snap- Hannah's challenging the blog master- what say you to that!?!'

  • Ahh just saw this! Agree w/ what Hannah said about the movie reflecting brokenness and strangeness in people's lives. It gives you a lot to think about. Really eerie. I think gender roles and family dynamics were really interesting. Also spirituality (well, clearly)…

    I really liked the language, however sparse, in the film too. Especially in the beginning, something along the lines of "some people live by nature, some people live by grace"

    really enjoyed reading your insightful review

  • Good review, Cameron.

    My take on the plot, if we're going to call it that, is that all of it, except for the adult Jack bits, just takes place in Jack's mind where time, imagination, and memory all sort of flow together–hence the sequences with his representation of his mother floating off the ground and being found in the woods as a sort of sleeping beauty figure. Malick even sort of hints toward this interpretation (or throws it in as a red herring) when we hear Jack's father briefly explaining the meaning of the word "subjective."

    Also, during the scenes with the men being forced into the back of the police car, my mother, who's a nurse, leaned over and whispered "Polio." I don't know if she's right, but it's certainly a possibility.