On DVD: The Tree of Life

Terrence Malick can’t count himself among the most popular directors working today, but he can certainly count himself among the most respected. His work tends to follow suit, and “The Tree of Life” is no exception. This meditation on life, death, God and the origin of the universe can be described as nothing short of visually masterful, but as well as Malick commands everything within his frame, he has a lot of trouble commanding his audience’s attention span.

Not that he cares — or should. Malick is cinema’s finest poet, and poetry has always been an art form belonging to the artist. We are not meant to understand “The Tree of Life,” but to be affected by it, struck by it in some way. The general public won’t take kindly to this, but anyone with an eye for expert filmmaking has to tip the hat to Malick’s latest.

“The Tree of Life” tells a non-linear story using a series of short visual sequences. Jack (Hunter McCracken as a boy, Sean Penn as a man) grew up in Texas in the ‘50s to a kind and spirited mother (Jessica Chastain) and a tough-love father (Brad Pitt). Although we know Jack loses his brother at the age of 19, this has little bearing on the rest of the plot, though it complicates older Jack’s perspective and informs the rest of our experience with the film. We then see the universe in action (including dinosaurs), followed by Jack’s life growing up.

The film ultimately becomes about Jack forgiving his father for making him “choose” between his parents, for the psychological damage done to him because of his father’s strict rules and rough life lessons. We see this in scenes best described as fleeting memories accompanied by voiceovers of the characters’ one-sided conversations with God.

As we all do in less cinematic ways, Malick wrestles here with faith and with our place in the world as individuals. Rarely, however, does he manage to make a concise point about any of this. Also, the film’s emotional impact comes only from the way we see Pitt’s character treat his children and how it damages Jack. There’s a disconnect then between what the film is about and how it leaves its deepest impression.

Pitt and Chastain give excellent performances despite the fact that “Tree of Life” is not a film about performances, at least not in the traditional sense. As much as they must be able to act, they must also be able to soak up the camera and bask in the expert lighting. That’s what it takes to be in a Malick film. McCracken also impresses considering how little he’s given to say.

Not enough can be said about the beauty of this film. Malick’s camera takes on a life of its own, moving fluidly throughout scenes and only pausing to capture something remarkable, usually with regards to light. Surely if he devoted these skills to more traditional storytelling he’d be among the most celebrated filmmakers alive.

It’s easy to dismiss “The Tree of Life” as pretentious. Unquestionably we expect certain things from film that we don’t expect from poetry; we value accessibility in our moviegoing experiences and “The Tree of Life” offers little of that. At the same time, it has valuable things to say and does so with a visual power rivaled by little else.


3.5/5 Stars


The Tree of Life
Written and Directed by Terrence Malick
Starring: Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain, Hunter McCracken, Sean Penn

1 Comment

  1. Jenni says:

    I didn’t completely understand this movie, but I was more struck by it than any other movie. Thanks for pointing that out!

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