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The Tree of Life

Directed by Terrence Malick

Reviewed by Tony Sheppard

Terrence Malick isn’t a prolific filmmaker – he’s made three films in the last 13 years, following a 20 year dry spell. But, for the Malick faithful, each is anticipated like a cinematic rapture. For others, they’re ignored, dismissed, or actively hated. In 1998, I described “The Thin Red Line” as “the world’s first philosophically anti-war weedwhacker commercial.” In 2005, his “The New World” did for lovingly back-lit leaves what “Line” did for lovingly back-lit blades of grass.

Malick has earned a reputation amongst detractors for a meandering storytelling style that’s more meander than story, filming hours of material and throwing much away during editing. Fans see it as the film equivalent of poetry – but if one approaches his films in search of the story, the experience can be exasperating. There’s an old joke: A horse goes into a bar and the bartender asks “Why the long face?” If Malick told it, it might become “A horse, a beautiful palomino mare, its golden flanks rippling under a light sweat, individual strands of white mane catching the late afternoon sun…” etc. As a joke it fails miserably, but as a description it’s exceptional.

Which brings us to “The Tree of Life” – and suddenly I find myself appreciating the exercise. I’m not entirely sold on every element of the film, but there are aspects here that are extraordinary. Perhaps the key difference is that there’s really very little story to be told and Malick’s inability or unwillingness to focus on a narrative simply isn’t a problem when it all but disappears.  

At its core, the film shows us a young boy growing up in Texas in the 1950’s – and it’s reasonable to assume there are parallels here to Malick’s own Texas upbringing. The boy is one of three sons, and we see them relating to each other and to their parents, played by Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain. In scenes set later in time, the lead son is played by Sean Penn and we also see him and the parents dealing with the news of the death of one of his brothers.  

Malick is extremely fond of voiceover narration, and this is no exception. Early on we’re told that the world is divided between grace and nature and, given the descriptions, it becomes clear that Penn’s character sees his mother in a state of grace and his father representing nature. As a result, he’s torn as a child in terms of how to act and relate to the world. His father is caring and gentle one moment and distant and angry the next – at times knowing how to take charge and at other times appearing lost – mixed signals for a troubled son who asks how nature can get back to grace. Later, as a man, he seems as uncertain of how to react as he was decades earlier, giving the impression that life is no easier for adults than for children, despite our outward appearances of coping.

The film explores the process of how we grow up and form identities, and the importance of love. When it’s doing that, it’s almost sublime, with incredible acting and scenes that seem too natural to have been staged. The childhood scenes are some of the best I’ve ever seen, focusing on the small moments that define us. But these are interspersed with scenes in which we see the formation of the earth, the birth of life, and even dinosaurs. In the worst of these, it feels almost as though we’re witnessing abiogenesis in real time.  

While some of these seem overly self-indulgent, they remind us that each of our lives and our existences are trivial and arbitrary in the grand scheme of things. Earlier creatures have gone through the same struggles and more will after us. Not only is Malick not telling a narrative tale this time around, but he seems to be dismissing the very concept. At some level it works – it’s the old horse joke with no pretense at ever reaching the punch-line.  

The film also explores religious themes throughout, including questioning from the boy as he witnesses tragedy and also experiments with bad behavior. At one point we hear the question, aimed at God, “Why should I be good if you aren’t?”

The level of attention to detail in the stunning cinematography and art direction is variously successful. Several shots through windows clearly show dirt that many filmmakers would clean off, adding a sense of authenticity. Meanwhile, furniture is so carefully collected to evoke an era that at times it’s like we’re walking through a staged museum of only significant period pieces, detracting from that reality.

On balance, the running time of 138 minutes seems excessive. Fish had an easier time dragging themselves out of the primordial ooze than some scenes in this movie. However, that said, the surprisingly linear central portion of the film is a thing of great beauty and benefits from the context, albeit perhaps not enough to justify the extent of that context. I’m not about to sing the praises of his earlier, meandering works, but “The Tree of Life” is a visual exercise in poetic ruminations about life that worked for me at a far greater level than I ever imagined it might. Even without a punch-line.


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