Full Disclosure: 2011 saw the release of what would immediately become two of my all-time favorite movies: Drive and The Tree of Life. Aside from their measured pacing, they couldn’t be more different. For The Tree of Life, my reaction was both visceral and spiritual. As a believer in God, watching this film was like watching an exegesis on my own soul, and by the end of it I couldn’t help but sob at the indescribable beauty that had been captured, and at how it had affected me. I doubt anyone could convince me that this film is bad, or pretentious, or boring, because for all 139 minutes I was riveted and could not be bothered by anyone to do anything. I never thought a film could have so much power.
Terrence Malick is one of the most obscure figures working in film today. Almost nothing is known about him. Yet, when you watch his films, his mind and his spirit come through so totally that you could probably walk up to him in the street and carry on a conversation as if you had known him for years. And The Tree of Life is his most personal film.
It is not a normal film. That is, it doesn’t unravel itself like a traditional narrative. We aren’t introduced to the protagonist until 20 minutes into the movie, and soon after that we are launched backwards in time to the creation of the universe. Because of this it is difficult to summarize what the movie is about. Some have argued that the film is about Jack, the main character’s relationship with his father and his coming to an understanding of faith. I don’t think it’s that simple. While Jack’s relationship with his father is a major part of the film, it isn’t the central conflict. I see the film as an examination of faith in the context of suffering as seen through the eyes of God. We see the life of Jack from beginning to end, bookended by the beginning and ending of the universe and throughout this we hear prayers, from Jack and his mother, as they struggle to understand the existence of death and pain, especially connected with the death of Jack’s brother, which occurs at the beginning of the film.
What’s extraordinary about the way this story is told is that it seems as if God is answering these prayers, albeit in a way that is equally mysterious and unmistakable in its divinity. This is not a religious film, however. Malick makes no attempt to proselytize for any particular religion, although the family in the film is Catholic. Instead, Malick takes a philosophical approach, using natural imagery as a kind of transcendentalist voice for what he sees as the answers that Jack and his mother seek. We as the audience are left to decide if there is truly any meaning behind these images, although I would argue that it is heavily implied that there are.
Aside from the spiritual aspect of the movie, it is also an incredibly detailed and strikingly accurate portrait of a family. All of the actors in the O’Brien family seem like they have truly lived with and grown up together over the course of a lifetime. The child actors that play the three boys are simply extraordinary and there is never a moment that rings false or delivered. There are some moments captured in the film that seem impossible to have been staged, like a scene where the relationship between a toddler and his baby brother is summed up in the look the children give to each other or when a butterfly lands on the mother’s hand, showing her harmonious nature. The dynamics that are established in the family vacillate but only change so much; there are no tearful confessions or outsized emotional breakdowns. This could be our family, and yet it is unique enough that we feel we know them as well as our own neighbors and friends.
Such incredible reality helps ground the film as it reaches towards its more lofty ambitions. As I stated above, there is a sequence in the film that shows the dawn of the universe. From the big bang to the generation of DNA, over about 10 or 15 minutes this part of the film becomes a special effects epic, showcasing some of the most intense and awe inspiring imagery I’ve ever seen. It would take the audience out of the film except for the fact that this overwhelming experience is Malick’s intention. He confronts us with the creation of the universe, and then slowly zooms back in to the family in small town America, demonstrating the incomprehensibly small size of one person against the universe. The interpretations of this sequence are myriad and I think are important to how anyone views and understands this film. As I said before, this is an intensely personal film, but not just for its director.
As should be apparent from this review, visual symbolism is infused throughout this film. Not all of it is subtle, but all of it is beautiful. There is one particular sequence that shows how a child’s soul perceives being born that is so powerful that it couldn’t have been told any other way except through image. Because of this, it is important that to enjoy this movie, a viewer should have an especially strong understanding of the language of film, and an open mind to the possibilities of what kinds of stories can be told. It’s worth the effort.