The Tree of Life (2011)

Directed by Terrence Malick


Every director has a passion project, and when you’re working for forty years, there’s a point at which you’ll get to make it.  The Tree of Life is Malick’s passion project.  It basically takes the more abstract parts of his previous films, the contemplative moments between plot points, and makes that the entire film.

There is no plot to The Tree of Life.  It’s just all the moments in between.

The story is about three young Texas boys who grow up with an intimidating father (Brad Pitt) and a gentle mother (Jessica Chastain).  Occasionally we will meet one of the boys as an adult (Sean Penn), but for the most part we exist with them during their childhood.

Jack, the boy who grows up to be Sean Penn, is the oldest of three boys.  Their story isn’t so much about what happens to them because what happens to them could happen to anybody.  There is nothing special about their lives, but the universality of the moments we follow is what makes them matter.

We’re with the boys as they play, regard a disabled man with a mocking curiosity, treat animals and property with cruelty, express love and hate and learn a little about the world in ways kids always do in coming of age films.

The film is shot almost exclusively with a wide angle lens.  The camera glides, floats, soars and races across the ground.  If it’s not moving with intense speed, it is looking upwards, circling a tree of a person with the type of camera angle usually reserved for images more grandiose.  Malick’s camerawork (along with the use of score) makes even the smallest artifact or the most mundane moment something majestic.

It may not have that effect on everyone, but that is surely the intention.  Malick juxtaposes life in this small Texan neighborhood with images of the world and of the universe.  He draws a line of comparison between a person growing up and the world coming into existence.  So much of this footage was captured, that he later released Voyage of Time: Life’s Journey and Voyage of Time: The IMAX Experience.

The film is perhaps a little self-indulgent as many films of this nature are.  By that I’m referring to films that claim to be deeply personal and deeply universal.  Another example is this year’s A Ghost Story and even Boyhood (all three of which happen to be set in Texas).  On one hand they are deceptively simple and deceptively intimate, but through that intimacy there is a comparison to life as we know it, and that can be a little off-putting.  For others, but not for me.  I loved it.

I’m a sucker for this kind of stuff.  It hinges on some of the simplest storytelling techniques, the use of sound and image, and here it works.  Again, just for me, because I know many people who loathe this film in the same way I loathe Hacksaw Ridge.

The Tree of Life gives the story plenty of room to breathe, maybe too much.  If you were an editor handed this film and told to just tell the narrative and nothing more, well then you could probably cut it at least in half.  I mean, there’s a whole sequence about dinosaurs.  What is that?  Apparently “The premise of the four-shot scene was to depict the birth of consciousness (what some have called the “birth of compassion”), the first moment in which a living creature made a conscious decision to choose, “right from wrong, good from evil.” Or, perhaps, a form of altruism over predatory instinct.”

There is this through line of compassion versus our capacity to harm.  The boys’ parents, who aren’t even given names, are in many ways larger than life figures.  From a child’s vantage point, a parent is almost unbelievably powerful.  They’re bigger, domineering, and they usher us through the world in a way no one else can or ever will.  Once you reach a certain age or a certain height, you’re kind of on your own.  Even if still taken care of, no one can quite introduce you to the world the way a parent can.  It’s quite magical the more I think about it, and I think Malick effectively captured that here.

The mother and father are two opposite ends of the spectrum.  The mother is compassion.  She is all that is good, and we all have part of that within us unless you’re Jerry Jones.  The father is more brutal.  He’s of the fight to survive mentality, and he often scares the boys, but the effect clearly rubs off on them.

In one sequence, when the boys learn that their father is out of town on business, they delight in playing with their mother and running through the home.  They squeal with a special kind of joy, and it might be the happiest moment of the film.  Still, in another sequence they find a frog and torture the creature, eventually tying him to a rocket they set off in the yard.

The movie, of course, never condemns any of this behavior.  The point is that it’s within all of us, and these kids are of an age where certain negative behavior goes unregulated.  They’re capable of violence, of compassion, and really of anything.  They’re at an age where it is all expressed, seemingly in equal proportion, and Malick compares this to the world at large.

I guess I could argue that the birth of the universe sequence doesn’t need to be in the film, but I certainly didn’t mind it.  If you’re onboard with the film fifteen minutes in, you’re likely to stick with it.  There’s enough of that Malick-y breathy voiceover at the top of the film to let you know what you’re in for.  In one scene, Chastain looks up at the sky and tells her boys that “that’s where God lives.”  It feels a bit silly, but then again she is talking to her kids, thus justifying the simplicity of the message.

There is a lot of talk of God and religion.  The voiceover, of multiple characters, will appeal to God directly.  When one of the boys dies offscreen, presumably within war, adult Jack will ask why God would do this.  The religious aspect of the film, though imbued with a specific kind of imagery, is oddly universal.

The “God” to which Jack refers doesn’t have to be any one type of God.  It’s everything, it’s the universe, it’s whatever you believe in, even if that’s nothing.  Adult Jack, though he has little to do other than to look a little tired and contemplative, is a man who has lost his faith and is looking to get it back.  Though he seems successful in his career, he is made to look deeply unhappy.  To highlight this, Malick puts Penn in a series of beautiful, modernly sleek locations with a powerful-looking job and an attractive woman in his bed.  He’s making a point to show that Penn (himself a deliberate casting choice to show a certain kind of ‘successful’ man) has everything that you might think would make a person happy, and yet it doesn’t.

What Jack is looking for is something deep within, and that’s where the childhood comes from.  Everything about his childhood and the way it’s presented stylistically is informed by nostalgia.  Jack is reliving certain moments out of order, as you do with memory.  There aren’t many complete scenes within these childhood shots, just fragments of memory and of emotion.  Just like you recall certain events, Malick presents Jack’s youth as a series of shots and images.

So many of these moments take time to look at young Jack’s face.  It’s likely more important to look at Jack taking in the world as it is for us to take in the world ourselves. There might be equal time devoted to images of nature and the earth as there are of Jack’s contemplative expression.  In him, perhaps, we can see the rest of the world.  We’re not seeing the world through his eyes, but we’re seeing what the world is creating within him, and Malick works to compare this creation of an individual to the creation of our universe.  It’s all one thing, I guess.  Is that what he’s saying?

Again, I could do without the creation of the universe sequence because I found Jack’s story and his memories compelling enough on its own.  That story is so simple that it might not make sense as a feature film.  There is dialogue, but at this moment I remember this film almost as if it was entirely silent.  All the power comes from the image and the music.  The occasional dialogue is just an added spice.

“There is an essence and a feeling that you associate with every memory of yours; I am talking about nostalgia. I can’t think of a single film that so effectively captures the feeling of nostalgia the way ‘The Tree of Life’ does. And that’s what is so special about the film. Malick doesn’t just try to capture memories, but the feelings evoked by the act of memory. Memories, in itself, are nearly impossible to depict on film. Most of the times, the version of memories we see in films are not only unrealistic but also far from how actually we visualize our memories as. In actuality, memories are fragmented, fleeting, non-linear, infinite-on-the-edges, sometimes exaggerated, and sometimes poetic. And that’s exactly how Malick treats memories as: not as realities, but imagination of realities.” – Gautam Anand (The Cinemaholic)

Maybe I shouldn’t just copy someone else’s opinion, but this is kind of exactly how I felt.  I liked this movie when I saw it, but I love it now.  It’s one of those fairly abstract films that allow you to project so much of yourself onto it.  It’s meditative, and it’s still making me think.  And then it’s just so damn beautiful to look at.

The cinematograher was Emmanuel Lubezki, the man who won consecutive Oscars for Gravity and Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance).  In some of his other films, both Cuaron’s Children of Men and Innaritu’s The Revenant, Lubezki uses a similarly wide angle lens as he does here.  In his films, the camera moves through the space, running through the environment as if to make sure you know this is a three dimensional world.  In other movies the camera is static (something like a Coen Brothers’ film) or maybe it gently, slowly pushes in one direction like in a David Fincher film.  In Lubezki’s movies the camera most often roars into the space, swirling this way and that with careful choreography.  It’s cliche to say ________ is a character (whether that’s a city, an era or the camera), but in this case the camera is most definitely its own character.

In The Tree of Life, the camera moves around the world as if it has a mind of its own.  The camera runs with the other children and follows the flight of a ball or a small rocket like a wide-eyed child just trying to keep up.  The camera is frantic, reflection the fleeting and fragmented nature of memory.  At least, that’s my impression.


The film ends with Jack following his younger self through the desert, clearly on some kind of pilgrimage.  He reaches a flat salt plain and soon after a picturesque beach at dusk where he meets the versions of his parents played by Pitt and Chastain.  They only react through expressions and touch, no words.  All of the characters from his memory are there, and they even interact with each other as if they’re their own people.  By that I mean that this dreamy sequence isn’t in adult Jack’s mind.  It’s heaven, or something like it.  When his mother sees his middle brother, presumably the won who died when he was 19, she is overcome with relief.  Adult Jack is just another person.

I think the idea is that whatever Jack was looking for, he’s found it.  He’s looked deep within himself, trying to identify some kind of truth about the world by examining who he was in childhood, when you are your most pure, your most unfiltered.  Maybe in those memories you can identify something that you’ve lost in the years since.  And here it seems like Jack has.  Malick might just be saying that it’s never too late to find yourself, you know, if you’re into that kind of thing.

The Tree of Life carries a lot of the same stylistic tendencies as other Malick works.  His two 70s films, Badlands and Days of Heaven were laden in breathy voiceover and shots of a beautiful pastoral landscape, but in those films this style was juxtaposed with a harsh violence.  In Badlands, Kit (Martin Sheen) kills multiple people and goes on a run with an adoring lover (Sissy Spacek).  She admires him even as she starts to see him as some kind of evil.  That film contrasts the style with the content, and Days of Heaven does something similar.  Both films are contemplative and violent, and this confrontation would suggest an examination of such behavior.  Those films could just be seen as of their era, influenced by the chaos of the 60s/70s and the Vietnam War, but Malick would do something similar with his third film, The Thin Red Line, made twenty years later.

That film really seems to emphasize Malick’s sense of style.  The film is about a deadly battle in an otherwise beautiful landscape, and again he finds a focus in the juxtaposition of such natural beauty with such abhorrent behavior.

I’ve heard some argue that Malick’s style works best when he focuses on these two opposites and the strange ways they coexist.  Something like The Tree of Life and a later film, Knight of Cups (which I admit I couldn’t finish but now hope to revisit) might feel bland because the contemplative style has less to react against.  We don’t see much of Jack’s adult life.  We don’t know exactly what he’s gone through or the ways in which he’s been lost, though it is vaguely implied.  Maybe if we were to see the depths to which he’s fallen, at least spiritually, Malick’s meditative style of shooting would serve more of a purpose.

When Sean Penn saw this film, he was apparently very unhappy, saying that most of what he and Malick shot was cut from the film.  From what I’ve read, Terrence Malick will start with a story, but he’s very aggressive in cutting out what he doesn’t think is working.  The script will often bear only a passing resemblance to the final product.  This kind of improvised shooting style allows him to find the story while they’re shooting, and it certainly helps make his films feel like some kind of spoken word poetry.

So The Tree of Life is a poem that will work for some and not work for others.  It was divisive upon its release, and I don’t think anything has changed.  It also seems to mark the beginning of a new phase of Malick’s career.  That being said, I’ve only seen the ten or so minutes of Knight of Cups, and nothing else post The Tree of Life.

Up Next: The Shape of Water (2017), East of Eden (1955), Koyaanisqatsi (1982)

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