Released 2011. Director: Terrence Malick
IN TIME, THE TREE OF LIFE WILL BE REMEMBERED AS THE NEW 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. Not that The Tree of LIfe is a science fiction. Far from it. I make this comparison on the film's merit as being decidedly ahead of its time and beyond audience expectations. It takes a strident step in furthering the boundaries of
film-making, showing us new ways of exploring narratives, concepts, and challenges the definition of motion picture itself.
There are grandiose visuals, soaring classical compositions, operatic choral singing, dreamy new-age music, long stretches without spoken words, a storyline that is literal, symbolic, oblique, and invites us to consider grand themes of cosmic proportions. At the end it leaves you with a feeling of having witnessed something extraordinary and perhaps also profoundly incomprehensible. For this reason The Tree of Life could have been retitled 2011: A Life Odyssey.
What Terrence Malick has done is put poetry on the big screen. It’s an epic poem on life, a meditation on all lives, Life with a capital L. From the creation of the universe to the ultimate death of our world, The Tree of Life reaches out on a vast canvass, ambitious, bold, deep and bewildering.
Emmanuel Lubezki’s visuals combine the earthly, homely 1950s suburban America with the otherworldly, science-fiction, spiritual cosmic vistas, taking in a flow of time and everything in it.
In a small Texas town, in a comfortable middle-class home, Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain raise three boys and we take part in their journey, through experiences of happiness, anger, sorrow, love and childhood restlessness. The family scenes are beautifully composed, combining normal activities like playing, walking and eating with equally beautiful images of nature like trees and waterfalls. All lives are connected, all lives are miracles, and divine.
At the beginning of the movie we are told there are two ways of life: the way of nature and the way of grace. The father in the movie represents the way of nature. He teaches the boys to fend for themselves, that the world is not always nice and they need to be tough and harsh to survive. The mother’s way of looking at the world is with grace. She represents protection, nurture, care, openness, perhaps indulgence to some, a counterpoint to her husband’s disciplinarian approach. We see this family through the eyes of Jack, the eldest child, played with equal measures of affection, respect and rage against his parents by a promising Hunter McCracken.
The Tree of Life does not conform to conventional narrative structure for movies. The presentation is a flow of ideas, expressed in images, symbols and melodies that make up the overarching thought about life – connection, understanding, acceptance, forgiveness and death.
The scenes of the present day featuring Sean Penn as the adult Jack contain very few lines of proper dialogue. What we see cannot always be taken logically as what actually occurs, but only as a reflection of a state of mind, an internal journey of the mind as Jack remembers his family and mourns the death of one of his brothers; and contemplates what his life has been and may be.
There is a scene of Sean Penn crossing a threshold where you don’t expect to see a door. He also meets a lot of people on a beach in a setting similar to what people with near death experience claim they see, the hereafter. This echoes an earlier scene where the boys escape an underwater room and swim to the surface, a representation of birth.
The Tree of Life is not an easy movie to pin down. It’s the kind of movies that promise to reveal new aspects if or when you watch it again in another time. Ambitious, richly textured and amazing to behold, The Tree of Life opens its arms wide and attempts to embrace all of life – the joy and pain, the beginning and the end, the mundane and the sublime.
If there was one recent Hollywood movie that came close to being groundbreaking, The Tree of Life is the one. It’s unlike any movie you’ve seen before. Every leaf on this tree tells a story of how all of life in the universe is connected, from the tiniest atom to the dinosaurs, the mountains, the oceans, humans, from the beginning to the end. The beauty in all of nature and time, the miracle of consciousness, the impulses and reflexes, what we do, how we love, how we live. It’s a poem of gratitude.
The Tree of Life is a forest of indelible images, a volume of ideas and questions. The final shot shows a bridge connecting two places across a great expanse. Like all works of art, this movie is open to interpretation – what it evokes in you personally, and how it speaks to you. You grow your own tree.