Tree of Life: Movie Review

Guh… Talking about politics too much makes you lose almost all hope for humanity after a while. So instead, here’s a post on a movie I saw on a date last Friday.

(Warning: Spoilers)


Written and directed by Terrence Malick

Starring Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, and Jessica Chastain

The Plot: A middle aged man (Sean Penn) tries to sort out the reasons for the death of his brother while his parents (Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain) try to do the same spiritually, emotionally, even logically as they question the existence and nature of God and the meaning of life.

The Review:

Terrence Malick is one of the foremost film makers of the “American Reality” genre of art films. In this film, he doesn’t tell the story through dialogue but through imagery. I liken it to an art gallery: Rather than you moving through the gallery to appreciate each piece of artwork, the art is moving for you. It’s a risky gamble for a filmmaker to take but at first it works.

The film starts (and is frequently punctuated and ended) with a black screen with a strange, ethereal light on screen that almost resembles a hand at times-Perhaps the hand of God? I suppose it’s up to your interpretation.

It starts thereafter with Jessica Chastain and Brad Pitt’s characters learning of the death of their son. The acting is well done, and some scenes like the father learning of the death on the phone while an airplane engine drowns out all other sound, just leaving Brat Pitt’s reaction, really reach you. It probably helps that I have experienced the loss of close family members in my own life, as numerous scenes, numerous lines of questioning and emotions expressed in the film are things I myself have experienced. Given Malick wrote this movie after his brother’s death, you can see how the filmmaker himself is putting his emotions out to the canvas, so in those scenes the film ring true. Seeing Sean Penn wandering over a salt flat in his mind while being constrained in real life by tall modern buildings evokes sensations many people associate with a grief far in the past but still painfully there.

However, at about the 30 minute mark we take a sharp right turn into what the heck land. Seemingly going for something out of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Malick takes us through the creation of the universe, the formation of the Earth, the rise of life on Earth, a short (seemingly pointless) scene of the age of the dinosaurs, the extinction of the dinosaurs and then on to the birth of Sean Penn’s character and his brothers.

Anyway, we follow them growing up in 1950s-60s Texas, once again a story told primarily through imagery. Brad Pitt’s character is tough and disciplined as a father but the love he feels for his sons comes through, while Jessica Chastain’s mother character is more free spirited, open and warm. The demonstrations of these different takes on life are poignant, but suffer from being very long, and filled with random moments of incoherence. We see a boy growing up filled with anger at seeing the death of another boy his age, at his father’s strict nature, and when his father is off on a trip the unfettered freedom he has that leads to him committing acts of animal abuse and vandalism. All of this feels real… But by this point in the film most audience members would be feeling impatient, even bored. Still, I stuck it out to the end… And was disappointed.

The part of the film dealing with Sean Penn’s character’s childhood ends with his father returning after losing his job and the family having to move, and Brad Pitt apologizing to his son for his harsh treatment. After that is the finale,  an extremely weird and ambiguous one that reminded me a bit of End of Evangelion and not in a good way: Sean Penn’s character meets with his family and the people who populate his memory on a desolate sandy beach. His father is happy to see him and his mother is overjoyed when Jack’s memory resurrects his dead brother which she thanks him for. And then the film ends with that strange ethereal light.

Making a film without a narrative is a pretty gutsy move by any filmmaker, and film as a medium does not necessarily need a narrative or even coherence. Taken on it’s own merits, The Tree of Life is truly an art film in the sense that it is designed to evoke emotions with it’s imagery along a theme, to tell a story only through image and sound. However, the resolution at the end feels tacked on, preachy and asinine, and frankly at 137 minutes long it is taxing to most movie goers, even the art house film crowd.

I feel the film could have benefited from being a bit shorter, concentrate the emotions into a more coherent journey. There’s a reason the Stargate sequence at the end of 2001 was not the entire movie. Sure, pretty images and seeking context in the universe and in God can be great, even profound but you can’t convey the entire complicated emotional journey a person takes through grief via film. You must have focus, and in that respect this film doesn’t deliver.

Still, it does not make it a bad film. If you are the type of person to linger at an art museum, who wants a film that will touch you where you grew up, who has the patience to appreciate a film that is designed more as an experience or meditation, then you might enjoy The Tree of Life.