The Tree of Life (2011)

Film #16: The Tree of Life (2011)

The Tree of Life is probably the most controversial film nominated for an Oscar this year. It’s not controversial because of any graphic violence. It’s not controversial because of any sexual imagery. Rather, it’s controversial because some people have complained that it’s too “artsy”. Too “experimental”. People have literally walked out of theaters during the film. They’ve even demanded refunds, apparently because they didn’t “get it”. I’ve gone through the IMDb message boards for this movie, and it’s riddled with posts asking “what’s the point?”. I knew all of this before sitting down for Terrence Malick’s latest endeavor (his first since 2005’s The New World), and, as such, I was prepared for some real Stan Brakhage-type craziness.

Instead, I got a quiet, philosophical, and admittedly ambitious film that is among the most beautiful I’ve ever seen.

The bulk of The Tree of Life centers around a 1950s suburban family in Texas. Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt) is an engineer who files patents for inventions. His wife (Jessica Chastain) stays at home to take care of their three young sons, Jack, R.L., and Steve (Hunter McCracken, Laramie Eppler, and Tye Sheridan). This story is framed partly by scenes showing an adult Jack (Sean Penn) in the present day, and partly by scenes showing the creation of the universe. Those are what seem to be drawing all this audience ire, but for me, they were the best part of the film.

I understand why some people might be turned off by such ambitious imagery. It seems out of place. You go to a movie because you see that Brad Pitt and Sean Penn are in it, and after 15 minutes of unexplained “story”, you’re all of a sudden watching the formation of our solar system. It’s unusual, I know. But instead of reacting with anger or disappointment, why not accept the challenge of the film? Malick is a veteran filmmaker who spends a ridiculous amount of time on each project – his first film, Badlands, came out in 1973, and in the subsequent 40 years he’s only made four other films (including this one). Trust that he’s not just throwing in clips of dinosaurs for the hell of it. Try to figure out what he’s saying.

I wasn't joking about the dinosaurs

So what is he saying? I’ll be the first to admit that I didn’t fully understand it all. But it’s a movie that ties its storyline to the creation and death of our planet. I’m not arrogant enough to presume I would understand a movie of such ambition after a single viewing. I did recognize the theme of grace vs. nature (set up in the film’s opening lines and personified by Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien). That was enough to start, and to appreciate the aforementioned scene with dinosaurs that detractors always like to bring up (one dinosaur spares another’s life – gracefully – right before an asteroid – nature – hits the planet and wipes out their species). And the rest of it? Even if you don’t understand it, you can appreciate its beauty.

This movie is awash with striking cinematography. From skyscrapers to arctic landscapes to waterfalls, everything – from mother nature’s mightiest powers to the delicate feet of a newborn baby – is shot in a way that will make you hope the film never cuts away. But it does, invariably to yet another amazing shot that you’d be proud to hang upon your wall. I really can’t stress how much eye candy is in this film. I haven’t seen shots this striking since BBC’s Planet Earth and Life series. The Tree of Life is rightfully nominated for Best Cinematography, and if it doesn’t win, I’ll have to kindly write the Academy and ask them what psychoactives they were  ingesting while voting.


As for the story itself, it’s a simple but effective look at the post-war era, back when America felt its best. Hard work and determination could get anyone ahead, as Mr. O’Brien stresses to his kids, as long as you remember not to be weak or too nice. He’s upset that he’s not richer and blames that on youthful ambitions to become a musician. To make sure his sons don’t stumble down their own life paths, he drills a rigid adherence to authority into them, especially oldest child Jack, who the story focuses on. Pitt plays a strict father, but one whose unerring love for his children still occasionally shines through, as long as they’re not at the dinner table, which sees a few violent outlashes from the family’s patriarch. The male-dominated household and the O’Briens’ faithful religiosity are both part of the culture of the film’s setting, as are Mr. O’Brien’s obsession with “keeping up with the Joneses” and smaller moments, like neighborhood kids playing in clouds of DDT. 1950s America is one of the most interesting time periods of history to me, so I personally found this quiet examination of the culture and its effect on family life thoroughly fulfilling.

The film is supported by a very strong cast, as well. Penn probably has 15 minutes of accumulated screentime, so there’s not much to say about his presence, but Pitt and Chastain are striking in their parental roles embodying the thematic duality. Neither of them got nominated for their roles here, but luckily, they’re both being recognized for other work at this year’s Oscars (Pitt’s starring role in Moneyball, Chastain’s supporting role in The Help). Even more impressive are the newcomer child actors. The youngest, Tye Sheridan as Steve, is given the least attention, but the older two are very capable young thespians. As Jack, Hunter McCracken perfectly conveys the moody rebelliousness of adolescence. He’s clearly a good kid who loves his parents, but the overbearing strictness of Pitt’s fathering is enough to move any young child into harmless acts of vandalism. And growing up, I knew plenty of kids like Laramie Eppler’s R.L. – soft, quiet, sensitive, and so damn innocent and trusting that a single look from his sad eyes is enough to melt your heart.

Laramie Eppler as R.L. O'Brien

The Tree of Life is a hugely ambitious project (have I mentioned that yet?) that somehow manages to connect a suburban family’s experiences in the 50s to existential questions about the universe itself. I’ve never seen a more wondrous or beautiful film. If you’re looking for cheap entertainment or some enthralling action flick, you might as well keep looking. But if you’re down to be intellectually challenged while watching amazing cinematic visuals, you won’t find a more perfect match than Mr. Malick’s latest.

Final rating: 9/10

–James A. Janisse

Stray Observations:

  • There was one moment when I thought to myself “I don’t think they’ve quite earned this” – when some epic symphonic music scored the boys playing outside together. Malick promptly punched me in the face by showing that the Mahler piece was actually diegetic, introducing us to Mr. O’Brien’s fondness for music and hinting at an alternate creative life that lost out to practicality in the end.
  • Wow, the film’s score was done by Alexandre Desplat, whose work I lauded in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. He also did the fantastic music in The King’s Speech, the last two Harry Potter films, The Ides of March, and a whole lot more. I’ll definitely keep an eye out for his name from now on.
    • A note from IMDb user Lem_Fliggity: “Comparatively little of Desplat’s original score was used in the film, only 5 pieces (about 7 minutes worth of music), in contrast to the 32 classical pieces that fill most of the rest of the runtime. If you’re interested in the pieces used, see this thread:” Thanks for the knowledge!
  • The ending on the beach was a little confusing and weird to me, but that may have just been because I was tired after the first 2 hours and 15 minutes of the movie.
  • This is one movie that I can’t wait to watch again, to see what I get out of a repeat viewing.
  • I don’t know if it could have used better marketing or if nothing could have made this movie more popular in our current culture of blockbusters and bottom lines. But it definitely saddens me that so many people reacted to something that they didn’t “get” with anger instead of intrigue.

One response

  1. It is definitely the most beautiful film I remembered viewing in recent years, and the comparison to the stark, natural beauty of BBC’s Life is spot-on! I actually saw it twice in theaters, and felt like I understood it so much more the 2nd time, especially the end… which is somewhat of an idealized, actualization of an afterlife that transcends the polemics throughout. That everyone turned out OK.. reminded me of Kieslewski’s Red.

    February 24, 2012 at 3:14 pm

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