The Tree of Life (2011)

by Jeff Beck, Guest Film Critic
The Tree of Life (2011)

 RICHMOND, VA  (HNN)  Of all the films released thus far in 2011, none has been discussed more than Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life.” From its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year, there were reports of the film being booed, but also reports of applause, which ended up winning in the end as the film took the prestigious Palme d’Or (Best Picture). The polarized reaction continued as some hailed the film as a masterpiece while others found it to be an indecipherable enigma that didn’t warrant the time to sit through it. Having finally seen the film, I’m left with a strange, mixed reaction as it’s quite a lot to take in at once.


The film begins with a couple, The O’Briens (Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain) receiving the news of and dealing with the death of one of their three children. It then takes a bizarre step backwards to encompass the formation of the universe and of the Earth itself. We see the start of life and even dinosaurs before the infamous meteor strikes the planet. We then jump far forward again to the 1950s to witness the birth of The O’Briens’ three boys and their early childhood.


Taking place in the 1950s, these boys have a rather simple life. They play outside until dark and do what their father tells them. However, as we get to know the characters, we slowly realize that Mr. O’Brien is a rather strict parent, and it is this strictness that triggers a strange change in one of the boys, Jack (Hunter McCracken). A divide begins to form between the two, a divide that we also find in older Jack (Sean Penn) several years later as he tries to come to terms with everything that’s happened to him.


My first reaction to the film was not exactly what I thought it would be. Not being a fan of Malick’s previous work, I fully expected to leave this film empty-handed, but this was not so. The imagery was even more impressive than I had seen in his earlier work and was a high-point of the film. The formation of the cosmos is no easy manner, which led to Malick seeking out the help of master special effects creator Douglas Trumbull, who’s had experience with this type of work before.


Film buffs will recognize Trumbull’s name as the man behind the special effects for Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” a film that features another strange and disorienting journey through space. With “The Tree of Life,” he uses very similar methods to show us the birth of the universe, methods that look just as amazing as they did back in 1968.


Putting aside the special effects imagery and looking at the other parts of the film, we find the same beauty that Malick is known for from his other films like “Days of Heaven” and “The Thin Red Line.” While those films are rather overrated, their imagery stands out as being one of the most memorable things about them, and indeed, “Days of Heaven” even won an Oscar for its cinematography.


One of the major things with “The Tree of Life” is its story structure. Was there much of a reason in showing us the formation of the cosmos in relation to the story of this family? Perhaps. Perhaps not. As I’ve found with Malick, he tends to have a lot of trouble coming up with a narrative to sustain an entire film and that’s what begins to happen here. We start off with a family in morning and then take a long sidetrip before finally coming around to showing us how the family started without even coming back to the point at which the film started.


While the first part of the film is somewhat interesting, even with the sidetrip, it is the second half that begins to wander in typical Malick fashion. In trying to relate the story of Jack’s change and the rift that forms between him and his father, it begins to feel as though the narrative is meandering and not really getting much across before jumping ahead in time again for a kind of coda to the film involving older Jack.


This is another point that has been put to much debate. We eventually find Jack on a strip of beach with his younger brothers, his parents, and several other people. Are we to take this as the afterlife, a reckoning of his past, or maybe both? One of the impressive things about this film is the debate it has sparked which has lead to a few possible answers. Is there one definite answer? Perhaps Malick meant for it to be what we find in it ourselves.


Overall, this is the best film I’ve seen from Malick yet, but I find that he still has some work to do when it comes to putting together a coherent narrative that will make the audience really care about what’s going on. It’s a beautiful film that could possibly walk away with Oscars for Best Cinematography and Best Visual Effects. There are even those that believe it has a chance at taking Best Picture, but with it being such a strange and enigmatic film, I just don’t see that happening. “The Tree of Life” is almost worth seeing for the visuals alone, but with a meandering second half, I can’t quite recommend taking the 2+ hours to sit through it, though, unlike other Malick films, I wouldn’t try to talk you out of seeing it either. 2.5/4 stars

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