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The Tree of Life

Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted June 7, 2011

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There is a poster on my wall for a film that currently stands at #4 on my Best Films list (or #5 depending on my mood and which one I'm rewatching). Only time will tell if The Tree of Life will bump it, or another of my favorites, further down the list. On that poster there is a critic's quote that I think fits Malick's latest just as easily as it does Kurosawa's Ran:

"Here is a film by a man whose art now stands outside time and fashion."
Vincent Canby, New York Times

This is a difficult film to review. I'm not sure words are sufficient to express my feelings about it, but I must make the attempt. Anyone familiar with my other reviews knows that I can be entertained by conventional Hollywood fare, but my favorites tend to be less mainstream. That The Tree of Life is not mainstream is probably the biggest understatement I have made this year at least. It is quite possible it is such a personal story for Malick that no one else will interpret it the way he intended. Then again, it is such a universal story that everyone should be able to embrace it, but I doubt that will be the case, mainly because of its style.

This is the first film I have reviewed for the site that is not undoubtedly either science fiction, fantasy or horror, even though the Internet Movie Database does list Drama and Sci-Fi as its genres. You should know by now that I don't like the "sci-fi" moniker, preferring the term SF, which can mean Speculative Fiction instead of Science Fiction. Using that criteria, The Tree of Life fits the stated purpose of this site. If the contemplation of where we came from, how the world came to be the way it is, what it all means, what awaits us when we die, why we are forced to suffer "the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune," if that is not speculative in nature then I don't know what is. It is not the type of film you expect to see in summer amidst all the FX blockbusters. It would have fit in better as a November or December release to push for Oscar contention, but I suppose Malick and Fox Searchlight wanted to capitalize on all the recent publicity since it won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival just a few weeks back.

I've read only one professional review for this film (Roger Ebert's), and I agree with every word in it, but I have refrained from reading others out of fear they would influence my thoughts. However, I think it safe to say that you can read all the reviews and do as much research on it as you want, it will be next to impossible for it to be spoiled for you. At most, it will give you some idea if it is a film for which you care to devote your time and money, or maybe help you decide it is not for you. This is a film that will require multiple viewings, and it is possible I will change my opinion of it every time. Art is like that. Everyone views it from a different perspective and with different expectations, and both can change over time. Some don't want a film to challenge them in that way. This one is not for them.

There are the typical nay-sayers who are calling it pretentious and boring, but I'll bet the upcoming Transformers sequel is more their style. I will not lie and say the film is not slow and langorous, that it has a discernible plot, or that it answers any questions. Sometimes just contemplation of the questions is sufficient. There are those who cannot embrace any speculation of a supreme being that may have created the universe, regardless of what name you give that entity. On the other hand, there are many who won't contemplate a generic interpretation of those questions, only accepting those that adhere to their specific religious view. I am not a religious person (spiritual maybe), but definitely not an atheist, and I doubt even agnostic is a good description. What does all that have to do with the film in question? Well...

Sean Penn plays the adult Jack O'Brien, Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain play his parents in flashback scenes. Exactly when the adult Jack scenes take place is debatable. If memory serves, the first time we see him he is waking from a disturbing dream. His wife is sitting on the opposite side of the bed, and it is apparent there is some friction between them but there is no dialogue to give us an indication of what may be the cause. I'll give you my speculation a bit later. Most of the other scenes with Penn are at his place of business, an architecture firm in Dallas, Texas. Throughout that day (I assume it is just one day) he thinks back on various periods of his childhood. A previous scene which was probably part of his dream rather than a flashback is of his mother, but she is alone so it could not be a memory of his, perhaps just how he imagined it might have been when she received a telegram informing her of her second son's death at the age of 19. Jack is the eldest sibling, probably two or three years older than R. L. (Laramie Eppler). The Sean Penn scenes might be on the anniversary of R. L.'s death, and if so then certainly many years later since it is Penn as he appears now at the age of 50. It is possible it is the anniversary of his mother's death rather than his brother's. Some have speculated that everything Jack envisions occurs while he is on his own deathbed, which I never thought of while watching the film, but I'll conceed the possibility.

The childhood Jack (Hunter McCracken) is torn between the love and respect for his mother, and the love/respect/fear/hate for his father. I think most men can relate to that, in fact some of our worst fears are seeing our father in our own actions. Mr. O'Brien can at times appear loving and caring, both for his wife and children, at others times overbearing, spiteful and vindictive. It is that dichotomy that causes the young Jack at one point to contemplate the murder of his father, but of course he cannot go through with it. About that previously mentioned scene with adult Jack and his wife, I speculate that she had recently informed him that she is pregnant. Jack fears repeating his father's mistakes, but at the same time is trying to reconnect with his father. He has a phone conversation with him in which he apologizes for something he had previously said, but I'm not sure at what point in their lives that regretted conversation occurred. Some of these descriptions may sound confusing, but bear in mind that none of these revelations are presented in a linear fashion. The film switches back and forth between present day Jack and his remembrances from various periods of his childhood, and several of them may be suspect memories. It's more like a dream than anything else. After further thought, I suppose some later scenes could be used to support the "Jack is dying" scenario, but at the time I thought it was his vision of how it might be in the future when he would be able to reunite with his family. Most of these things don't really matter, everyone is going to see this film with their own eyes, their own remembrances of childhood, their own love or hate for their parents.

For some years Malick labored on a screenplay with the tentative title of "Q." It was to have been an exploration of the creation of the universe, our world, and all life on it, and my best guess about the title is that it would have stood for "Questions." It is obvious some of those ideas were interwoven into the fabric of The Tree of Life. There is a long sequence of cosmic upheaval, volcanic activity on the Earth, the emergence of the first life forms and their evolution into higher life forms. It really doesn't have much to do with the rest of the film, except if those scenes are in the mind of Jack as he is trying desperately to sort out the conflicting feelings about his life, his family, how he fits into the picture, of whether there is any meaning to life at all. This is another aspect of the film that many might feel is pretentious, but if there are any of you that have never contemplated the enormity of the cosmos and the meaning of it all, then I feel your life has been wasted.

Something that is vaguely personal for me is that while not filmed in my home town of Waco, Texas (other than one enigmatic shot of downtown and another of a residential district), Jack's childhood scenes are set there. The majority of the flashback scenes were filmed in Smithville, Texas, with the one where Jack and his family witness the drowning of another boy being at Barton Springs Pool in Austin. There is a debate of where Malick was born and raised. IMDb says it is Ottawa, Illinois, Wikipedia says either Ottawa or Waco. Ebert's review mentions Waco as his birthplace. I did not see Malick's first film, Badlands, until several years after its release. When Days of Heaven came out, I recall both a local news station and a newspaper article noting that he was a native Wacoan. One scene that comes close to answering the question is when young Jack, his siblings and his friends are running behind a truck that is spraying for mosquitoes with DDT. The sign on the side of the truck says City of Waco Mosquito Control. And yes, I do recall those trucks, and my friends and I ran behind them just as the boys in this film do. It is a wonder we weren't more harmed by that poison, or any more than we were.

This is more than just a film, it is an immersive experience. You must be receptive to its dreamlike quality, its non-linear approach to the story. There aren't many things I can think of with which to compare it, but if I was forced to come up with something I would say it is a cross between 2001: A Space Odyssey and the "Rite of Spring" segment of Fantasia, mixed with some esoteric opera that you know is significant if only you understood the language. I recommend you go to see it on a weekend, or at least a day on which you are not tired from work. Just sit back and let the visions and words flow over you without trying to interpret them at the time. That will come later. If you are anything like me, you will be thinking about it long after you walk out of the theater.


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Terrence Malick

May 27, 2011 (US)

Brad Pitt
Jessica Chastain
Sean Penn
Hunter McCracken
Laramie Eppler
Tye Sheridan
Fiona Shaw

Full Credits at IMDb

Blu-Ray/DVD Combo available from amazon.com

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