The Tree of Life Review
Where do you start? I mean of course, where do you start when you attempt to review a Terrence Malick film – an exercise doomed to fail to capture the sheer scope of ideas and impressions contained within and evoked by his work, as you can imagine if you’ve seen the increasingly impressionistic work on his last two films (they don’t come that often) The Thin Red Line (1998) and The New World (2005). The Tree of Life, as the title indicates and that enigmatic trailer promised to all those eagerly awaiting the long gestation of the latest film from the greatest living American filmmaker, is indeed another deeply spiritual experience that looks at life in all its majesty, magic and mystery. If it were possible to put into words what is expressed by The Tree of Life, there would have been no need for Malick to make a film.
Where do you start indeed? And where do you end, come to that? Those kind of question take on a whole new meaning when you consider them in the context of a Terrence Malick film, but, put in its simplest terms – and it is possible to consider and appreciate the film on those terms – The Tree of Life concerns Jack and his earliest formative experiences of life in a small town in Texas during the 1950s, his conflicted feelings for his father (Brad Pitt), his attempts to understand the nature of his mother (Jessica Chastain), and his childhood growing up with his two brothers. Looking back as an older man (played by Sean Penn) in the present day, one event stands out, and that is the death of one of the boys. The path of the film isn’t straightforward or easy to follow and it takes a while to even be able to piece together that much, but every scene in the film, and the unconventional nature of how it is expressed, all relate to Jack’s attempt to understand the nature of those bonds and the experiences that form them.
I’m oversimplifying of course, but in essence, the film is indeed as simple as that. In practice, there is a lot more ambiguity, mystery and questions raised in regard to life, nature, who we are, what makes us, what we make of ourselves, where indeed we start and where we end. To take us into this realm of philosophical meditation where cinema rarely ventures, Malick uses a variety of techniques, some of which will be familiar to anyone who has seen his previous films – low, mumbled voice-over narrative, broken down into meditative thoughts and ideas, with impressionistic imagery that draws primarily from nature in all its beauty, particularly in moments of extreme mental turmoil and violence, seeking to find answers in the world around us, seeking to find sense and meaning in a bigger picture.
Malick takes those ideas, those questions and techniques even further into abstraction in The Tree of Life. The scope of the film is vast, the film digressing at points from the realms of the microbiological to the level of astronomical phenomena, taking the question of life right back to its origins at the start of creation, from dinosaurs roaming the earth, from the birth of Jack and his earliest impressions as a child, trying to make sense of life, right through to his later life as an older man, and even beyond that. It’s incredibly ambitious, and some of the extended abstract sequences will really throw some viewers (some of it a little bit derivative of the final sequences of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, if that’s any kind of helpful reference), perhaps being even a little too ambitious to take seriously as an attempt to convey such complex ideas in purely visual terms. Whether the viewer connects with it or is able to make anything out of it or not, many of the scenes are unique and indescribably beautiful, and likely to create a strong indelible impression on the viewer.
It seems pointless and unnecessarily reductive to offer an interpretation of the meaning of the film, but it is clear from similar ideas explored in the director’s other films that there are a great deal of personal and perhaps autobiographical elements within the film. The small town life in America in the 50s shown here is very reminiscent of the locations of Badlands, an almost Eden-like paradise where the camera roams free and everyone seems to float like heavenly creatures, which is contrasted with the modern day scenes of Jack in torment in the grey faceless tower blocks of an anonymous financial district. Such imagery, the past and present split furthermore by the death of one of the boys and the loss of the family’s idyll to the endless pursuit of commercial betterment, also suggests a loss of innocence, a spiritual impoverishment and a kind of banishment from Eden to which one can never return.
The Tree of Life however is not quite as simple as that, and to view it on those terms alone means denying the ambiguities and mysteries and the richness of ideas and impressions that permeate almost every single image of this remarkably beautiful film (which, to be honest, looks almost too pretty to be true and doesn’t perhaps have enough challenging contrasts to set against it). The film has the additional benefit of some wonderfully nuanced performances from Pitt, Penn and Chastain, but also from the young boys, where every naturalistic look, glance and gesture speaks volumes about their relationship with each other and the world around them. To say any more about the meaning of the film would be pointless, since this is a film that doesn’t need to be written about (at least not in a film review), it needs to be seen and experienced, and on the big screen if possible. This is cinema at its purest, its most imaginative and its most ambitious, freed from the constraints of traditional narrative and conventional filmmaking techniques and always open to new possibilities, all the more to uniquely touch the viewer in a moving and deeply personal way.