Title: The Tree of Life (2011)
Director: Terrence Malick
Cast: Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, Jessica Chastain
A big thank you goes out directly to Terrence Malick, the director of The Tree of Life for making this amazing film. This is the kind of cinema that rekindles my love for film. You know how sometimes you burn out from watching bad films? How sometimes so many bad films make their way into your mind that you kind of loose hope of ever watching a film that really truly matters? A film that really truly gets to you? Well, The Tree of Life fixed all that for me. Here’s a film that is so truthful, so genuine, so full of love for life that anyone who watches it will be moved by it somehow, someway. The Tree of Life felt as if Terrence Malick took all his life experiences, everything he has ever lived and experienced, thought, and wondered and siphoned it into this one film. This is the brainchild of a lifetime of accumulated experiences. You can tell this film comes from a mature, intelligent mind that’s pondered deeply into the great mysteries of life and returned with this amazing film.
The Tree of Life doesn’t have that rushed quality that most commercial films posses. You know, where you can tell the film was made quickly in order to meet a Summer Blockbuster Season deadline. Nope, this is a film that has been festering in the mind of its creators for a while. Actually, if we’re going to be getting down to specifics, this film has been in Malick’s mind for the longest time, since way back in the days where the project was called 'Q'. Because of the risky nature of a film of this caliber, unsure producers caused the project to continually change actors and distributors since its very beginning. But filming finally started in 2008 and kept on going through the years, until recently when it was finally released in 2011! It certainly has that feel of a film that was well thought out and planned. Terrence Malick obviously took special care on this one. You can tell it was a film made with true love, true devotion for film and what you can say and transmit through it. This film comes from a filmmaker who fully recognizes the power of films. David Lynch wrote a book called “Catching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness and Creativity” in which among other things he talks about how ideas are like fish in a pond. The deeper you dive into the pond, the more exotic the fish you will find. It seems to me like Terrence Malick dove really deep into his pond of ideas and returned with a really exotic, moving, emotional film.
The Tree of Life is brimming with such tender moments, moments that you can just tell came from a personal childhood memory, or some true life experience that the filmmaker had. This is the kind of film where as you watch it you will constantly say things like “I remember that”, “I remember going through that” or “That happened to me when I was a kid!” I know I did. It will have you remembering beautiful moments from your childhood that you had completely forgotten about. But at the same time, like in life, it has bittersweet moments. As all of us who are alive can testify, life can change from happy to sad in the blink of an eye. I loved how the film portrayed that aspect of life in a realistic way, not as a fairytale. Let’s face it, film can sometimes be guilty of overusing happiness. Sadness and tragedy are just as much a part of the experience as everything else. The Tree of Life covers all these aspects of life, the happy and the sad. It goes from being born, to seeing your baby brother arrive for the first time from the hospital. From holding your son for the first time in your hands, to showing him how to take his first steps. To all these moments you have when you are a kid, like playing hide and go seek or being mischievous with your friends, daring each other to do “bad things”. Sibling rivalries, hatred towards parents…simply put, this is a film that encompasses a very wide range of themes.
Family life gets its fare share of screen time because at its core this is a film that explores family dynamics and it explores them from all angles. From the angle of the father, the son, the mother, the brothers, they all get their say in this picture. The portrayal of the American family in this film is very 1950’s, meaning the father is the bread winner, the mother is the housekeeper. And they all go to church on Sundays and pray before they go to bed. The dynamic between husband and wife reminded me a lot of the type of situation we saw in Sam Mendez’s Revolutionary Road (2008), a film that also explored that conundrum of the housewife with no say so. In The Tree of Life, the housewife is played by Jessica Chastain in the role of Mrs. O’Brien. She says very little in the film during the scenes that take place in the household, yet it’s her thoughts we hear most of the time. The loving nature of the female, the nurturer, the mother is what we hear the most. Rarely do we hear Mr. O’Brien’s thoughts. Mr. O’Brien, played by Brad Pitt is portrayed as half harsh man, half loving father/husband. He is a man carved the old fashioned way where men have the last and only say so in matters and the woman children are there to follow the father/husband’s lead in life. I found it interesting that it’s the love of the mother which shines through most of the film; from beginning to the very end, it is her voice that guides us through.
Another theme that the film constantly addresses is the proverbial big question: is god real? Does he exist? If he exists, then where is he? Is he really out there? And if he is out there, then why does he allow bad things to happen? Characters say things like “I want to know what you know, see what you see” while questioning the existence of God. It’s not every movie that dares to ask these questions so openly; it is a delicate theme after all. But Malick addresses these themes with such sincerity and humility, that it doesn’t feel like slandering, or even preaching. These are just logical questions that pop up in all our minds at one point or another. I liked how when characters ask these questions, they do so in the privacy of their minds, in their private thoughts. And even when these questions are being asked inside of their heads; we hear the questions in a whisper. I guess that’s Malick’s way of letting the viewer know the reverence given to these ideas of a superior being who watches over all of us.
But ultimately, I felt as if Malick was portraying nature as the ultimate creative force in the universe, nature as God. And this was yet another reason why I loved this movie so much. I personally feel that the thing that’s worthiest of our worship or adoration is life itself. Nature is an awe inspiring thing, and Malick shows us that in this movie. At times, it felt like I was watching one of those BBC’s ‘Planet Earth’ documentaries which I love so much. These documentaries (much like Malick’s film) show us things about nature we thought we’d never see. Like Herzog in some of his films (Fitzcarraldo for example) Malick shows us places of earth that look alien to those of us who’ve never seen them. Those of us living in concrete jungles. This is yet another theme that the film puts in juxtaposition: that of nature vs. civilization or how I like to call it: Trees vs. Buildings. In the film, Sean Penn’s character looks down at the concrete jungle as he remembers fondly those days of he’s youth where he played in the backwoods of his suburban home. He looks at the buildings as if they were engulfing him, suffocating him. I loved this part of the film. Sean Penn represents the modern man who remembers being in contact with nature, who remembers a simpler life. Not a life filled with concrete, steal and glass. During these thoughtful moments he realizes that the world has gone to the greedy.
I couldn’t end this review without talking about the more “spaced out” moments of this film which are some of the most beautiful ones. Not a line of dialog is spoken during most of these scenes; the images are the ones that do most of the talking. During these scenes, visuals and music completely take over. I loved Malick’s exploration of the universe, trying to demonstrate how beautiful and vast and unexplored it is. How small we are in comparison the vastness of the universe. Its no wonder the film starts out with a text from the bible. The text is Job 38:4 in which God asks Job the following: “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? When the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for Joy?” I personally have a fascination with all things cosmic, for me, it is out there where the great mysteries of life lie and so I love films that talk about these things. It is inevitable that a film that “spaces out” the way this one does will be compared to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1969) the mother of all spaced out movies. Same as Kubrick, Malick plays these scenes out with a feeling of grandeur and spectacle. Be ready for sequences that are composed of visuals and music alone for long periods of time. Some might find this boring, but in all honesty, I was mesmerized by them.
Ultimately, this is a very polarizing film. When I watched this one in theaters, the crowd watched the whole film in silence, and when it was over, some applauded (myself included) and some chuckled and laugh, as if they’ve just seen the stupidest movie they had ever seen. Whoever finds this movie to be a joke has to be made of stone. This is one of the most profound movie experiences you will have. It explores life and the meaning behind it, it’s a film that says that nature, and life and all its bitter sweetness are all here to be experienced and embraced by us all, and that in the end, the only thing that matters is love. How can you go wrong with that? The Tree of Life is a masterpiece, a visual tour de force meant to be experienced with someone you love by your side, be it a friend, family or the love of your life. As one of the characters says in the film: “The only way to be happy is to love. Unless you love, your life will flash by” What a lovely message to give.
Rating: 5 out of 5