SPOILER ALERT: Depending on your movie preference, this may actually be a film where spoilers help a bit. What I mean is that The Tree of Life is not your normal film. If you go in expecting a normal film, you may be disappointed. I’ve heard some say that the film is too meandering or pretentious. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, but I completely disagree with those sentiments. I believe we should come to every film ready to receive what, if anything, it has for us. With The Tree of Life, that is an experience unlike any other. With that, I’ll give my usual heads up that I will discuss major elements of this film in my review. If you’ve never seen it, I highly encourage you to watch the film before reading. Thanks!
The great Roger Ebert compared Terrence Malick’s 2011 masterwork The Tree of Life to a prayer. This may just be my favorite Ebert review of all time and, as was usual with him, I think the comparison was genius.
You hear the term “experiential” thrown around a lot these days. When it comes to films, the phrase is often used to describe movies that are immersive and, sometimes, rather ethereal. A film like 2001: A Space Odyssey comes to mind. That film, like this one, had incredible ambition.
If this intro seems a bit meandering, it’s because - even after multiple viewings and a deep love for this film - it’s hard to know where to enter an analysis of it. That shouldn’t be viewed as a criticism in any way. Rather, I feel like my experience of this film continues after I’m done watching it. Another common refrain when discussing films is that they “grow on you with repeat viewings.” I’ve had this happen with a few films, but none quite as viscerally as The Tree of Life.
From a plot perspective, the film attempts nothing less than to showcase the totality of existence. It does this through vignettes of the beginning of time, great movements in nature and space, and even scenes that include dinosaurs. That may sound confusing, but please, hang with me.
The other storyline takes place in 1950s Texas and follows a family. They appear to be regular in every sense of the word. Then, early in the film, we gather that a child has died. The family begins to wrestle with the aftermath, and we are left to wonder where God is in it all.
God is present throughout the entire film, which is one reason I love this film so much. There is no character who plays God, and overt intercessions to a Higher Power - while present - are not numerous by any means. What I mean is that there is a spirituality present in every scene of this film. The meaning behind that is left for the viewer to decide. My faith is extremely important to me, and it often informs the way I interact with films. So I come to this movie seeing certain things there. But that is not to say this is a “Christian” film in the sense that that term has come to mean. Though, I wish every “Christian” film (and every film, in general) would aspire to the kind of filmmaking that is present in The Tree of Life.
Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki served as the cinematographer on the film, and I’m still not sure how The Academy managed to give that year’s Oscar for Best Cinematography to someone else. Some of the shots in this film are otherworldly. Legendary effects genius Douglas Trumbull (of 2001: A Space Odyssey fame) was brought in to help create the sequences of space and time early on in the film. Rather than use the computer-generated effects of the day, the crew created these shots using paints, chemicals, and spin dishes to create the incredible images on screen. To watch these images along with the equally-incredible music is nothing short of mesmerizing. Here, Malick wants us to consider what place we really occupy in a universe so expansive. From that macro view, we then come down to the micro focus of the film’s parallel narrative.
This is also where the acting performances take over. Malick is famous for his curiosity. While that makes for astounding visuals, it must not always be the easiest process for actors. He would routinely be in the middle of a scene and turn the camera to focus on a passing butterfly or other fleeting moment. Again, the film is more beautiful for it, but I think credit should be given to the actors for their ability to work in such a situation.
Jessica Chastain may just be my favorite actress working today, and this was the film that provided her big break. She is so graceful in her perfomance as the family matriarch, Mrs. O’Brien. Her character embodies the way of grace in the film - the forgiving and compassionite presence. Brad Pitt, as Mr. O’Brien, embodies the competing way of nature - the impulse to fight your way to the top through selfish ambition. Malick’s genius here is that he presents these competing ideas early on, then supports them visually in subtle ways throughout the rest of the film.
I recently purchased the new Criterion Collection print of this film, and iconic director Christopher Nolan discusses this in one of the extra features. He talks about how many films have a rift between narrative elements and visual style. Basically, the plot and dialogue tell one story, and the visuals tell another. But “with the greats” as he puts it, these narrative and visual elements are embedded together so that they support one another seamlessly. The Tree of Life does this in astounding ways. Other films have tried to wrestle with the meaning of life and the totality of existence, but I’m not sure that any film has earned that lofty ambition like this film does.
This film moves me emotionally in ways that other films do as well. For instance, the acting is pristine and the music is beautifully evocative. But then this film goes even deeper and touches me emotionally in ways that no other film has. The visuals are certainly a key element. I cannot say enough just how beautiful the shots in this film are. You will never see anything like it. But, for me, the most emotional connection point is the film’s focus on nature vs. grace. Again, this is in an incredibly spiritual film. I must echo Ebert once more and say that this really does feel like a form of prayer. I feel like I am having a spiritual experience when I watch this film. And I don’t use that phrase lightly. My faith is the core of who I am. But this film handles its spiritual matter in a way that is unlike any other film I’ve seen.
Malick is also famous for using voiceover. In many films, voiceover is utilized in a way that is not earned by the story. But here, since we are dealing with spiritual and even dreamlike topics, the voiceover works, I think. Take, for instance, the sequence after we find out that the child has died. Mrs. O’Brien, in voiceover, begins questioning God. I think, in the same situation, we might all pose similar questions. King David even does this in the Psalms. But here is where the film’s beginning is so significant.
The film begins with a verse from The Bible - Job 38:4,7.
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?
We face hardships in this life. It seems callous to even refer to something as painful as the death of a child as simply a “hardship”. Those are crippling events. We have those, too, even if they aren’t the exact same situation. But I think Malick is attempting to get us to the place where we can consider where such events fall in the totality of existence. Where were we when God laid the foundations of the Earth?
I think most creators would cripple under the ambition to create a work that speaks to the totality of human existence. Even Malick took more than 20 years to put this film together. He deserves credit for sticking with the project and seeing it through. What results is a film unlike any other.
Sometimes we look at films as being in two separate categories. There are those that pull us out of our existence and suspend us in a state of entertainment for two hours. Then there are those that use their two hours to help us understand our existence in new ways. I’m not here to say that one is preferable to the other. I think there are great films in each category just as I think there are great films that do both.
But The Tree of Life is in its own category, I think. It is probably closer in relation to a piece of music than to any other film. I say that because this film has movements just as a great piece of music does. It is spiritual and emotional. It is ethereal. It is experiential. And I meant it when I said that this film lives on after you watch it. I watched it recently, and I’m still thinking about various aspects of it.
This is a film that inspires awe and wonder. There are questions, and maybe there are answers. Maybe not. More than anything, I think this film brings about an awe at the beauty of existence. The beauty of the fact that we are here. We are a part of this grand design - this universe that is so expansive and impossibly large. We are just one small speck in the infinitesimal speck that the entirety of Earth’s history represents in comparison to the vastness of the galaxies. And yet, we are here. We live. We experience joy. We experience pain. Amid it all, there is another Power at work. As I watch this film, I am filled with thankfulness for it all.
That a movie can do all of that is absolutely astounding.
Note on content: This film is rated PG-13, and should be appropriate for all viewers. Though its themes may be difficult for younger viewers, I think they are important ideas for people of all ages to consider. There is no sexual content, and only one instance of profanity. This is a beautiful film in every sense of the word.