The Tree of “huh?”

The Tree of “huh?”

Waste of Time
Jul 8, 2011

Terrence Malick’s latest directorial effort, information pills The Tree of Life, case attempts to contemplate the glory and wonder of the universe and it’s interconnectedness with our lives. It centres around a suburban Texan family in the 1950’s. Brad Pitt plays the stern (and abusive) but loving father, Mr. O’Brien, while Jessica Chastain (a deadringer for Bryce Dallas Howard) plays the quiet and permissive mother. They have three boys. The film begins a little further into the family’s life with Mrs. O’Brien receiving a letter about the death of her middle son, aged 19 at the time.

The film seems to be designed in four movements, like an opera. The first act is when we learn about the death of the son. It’s brief and it’s filmed with incredible artistry. The camera is in constant, fluid motion. The scenes are interspersed with shots of nature; crashing tides, waving grass, clouds floating. Even sweeter, the architecture of this first movement is very earthy. The house of the family is full of windows, letting in sunlight. The walls and floors are wood. Other buildings are simply pure glass, leaving you with a feeling of being connected with nature. This, of course, is Malick’s intent and it works wonderfully. In this opening movement we are not only introduced to the parents, but also their eldest son, Jack (Sean Penn), as an adult. He is shown in present day and is still grieving the loss of his younger brother. It is in this part of the movie that the pain of loss is introduced and we get a brief, albeit broken, sense of the main the characters.

But then there is a quick shift into the second movement. It starts in darkness as we begin to witness the birth of the universe. Slowly light and fire are swirling and bursting across the screen. Malick takes us through a stunning (but waaaaay too long) journey of the universe unfolding. But that’s not all. We then float down to earth and get to see what’s happening under the oceans. A stunning visual feast of evolution’s development. Eventually, we see dinosaurs. Yes, dinosaurs. And Malick continues this overdrawn movement with dinosaurs living upon the young earth. But wait! There’s more! The dreaded comet comes flying from outer space and slams into Mother Earth causing the climate shift that is theorized to have annihilated the dinosaurs. But, there’s more! He continues this sequence by showing us the icy terrain, the snow, the mountains. And finally volcanoes erupt, lava flows and slowly life on earth becomes fertile again. Is he done yet? Thankfully, yes. And now we can shift back to the movie we started watching.

The third movement is really the heart of the film. It shows the family growing from the birth of the first son, Jack, to the arrival of the other two. We witness the complicated emotions that exist between Mr. O’Brien and his boys. We experience their childhood as they play in the suburbs of Waco, Texas and learn about the dynamics of these three brothers. We see the contrast of a mother who is quiet, spiritual and permissive while her husband is struggling to become the great man he’s always dreamed to be.

The fourth movement is a bizarre, dream-like sequence where Sean Penn’s character (present-day Jack) steps into a heaven-like setting, complete with angels and all the people in his memory. He finds his father, his mother, his youngest brother and even his dead brother (as he remembers him as a child) and they all embrace. It’s quite beautiful and sort of touching. Except, we don’t really care a whole lot for these people because the filmmaker has failed to truly connect us with them.

The Tree of Life is a cinematic mediation on life, death, the universe, nature, love and loss. As the film unfolds I expected for the meditation to be emotionally based. We’re talking about life and love, after all. Unfortunately, Malick gets so lost in his own creativity that he fails to ground the story. We don’t get to know these characters until half-way through the film. And when we do, the narrative is so disjointed and ethereal that it’s hard to be genuinely invested in this family. Certainly, we can relate to them. The eldest son is struggling to understand his place in the world. The love between Jack and his brother is something that anyone who has a sibling can connect with. But these are more like pictures. Images that we relate to. Not a story that immerses us in the experience.

Malick’s approach is somewhat intellectual and highly artistic, which is thrilling to watch. This film looks amazing. The movement of the camera, the colours, the images he creates to describe the unfolding of the universe is all wonderfully breathtaking. If that’s all it was, I’d feel a lot different about this movie. But he also tries to impart a family tale of love, grief and forgiveness. That’s an emotional story. But by the time we get to it, there’s no emotion to be had. We’ve been too busy taking in this profoundly beautiful imagery and processing the theological discourse. Throughout the entire film there is a constant chatter of rambling, whispered prayers; sometimes you don’t know who’s talking or to whom they are talking. It all becomes convoluted and, unfortunately, ineffective. The experience is simply frustrating. While I respect Terrence Malick for his boldness and creativity, ultimately The Tree of Life is confused and the characters unrealized. It’s conceptually and visually beautiful but emotionally void.

About the Author

Craig the Critic


  1. have you seen Places In the Heart? Interesting parallels.

    • No. But looks interesting. Is it similar to “Tree of Life”?

  2. well, in its sideways treatment of the afterlife, maybe. It’s actually a pretty great closing scene in that respect…

  3. …it’s actually more like Mississipi Burning.

    • Cool, I’ll definitely give it a watch. Is it the one with Sally Fields?

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