• Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life makes otherwise beautiful films, seem unbeautiful by comparison.
  • The Tree of Life opens with Sean Penn’s character Jack (character names are meaningless here and hardly, if ever, referenced – so I will be using the actor’s name here for the most part) praying/talking to his brother. The angelic Jessica Chastain (2011 was her big coming out party- Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter is the same year) takes the reins of the voice-over (before passing it to others) early, as, through her, Malick explains the duality that he has meditating on his entire five film and nearly forty-year career: grace and nature. Grace here is embodied in Chastain’s character. Pitt’s character is nature. They are the parents of three boys (Penn’s Jack character is the grown-up version of the eldest of the three) and Jack’s soul is the one that has a sort of Faustian battle between grace and nature—sort of goodness vs. harsh pragmatism.
  • There is a medley of immaculate images that follow (this is really how you could describe the entire film).

Malick uses these low angle shots through trees (a staple in his repertoire) usually with the sun poking through.

This is juxtaposed with a low angle shot of skyscrapers– it is quite easy to guess which of these two worlds Malick prefers

A sublime low angle shot up through the swirling stained-glass windows of a church arrives soon after.

As a formal marker, like the pink/blue dye experimental watercolor splashes in PTA’s Punch-Drunk Love, Malick uses these sort of embryonic flares four times throughout the film including the final shot- a brilliant part of the montage.

  • Whether it was found or designed by Jack Fisk (Malick’s go-to production designer), the location and home used in Texas is perfect.
  • After Malick sets the scene in the opening with his flickering, mosaic style, the cosmos are invoked. This bold formal interlude lasts roughly fifteen minutes from the 20-minute mark to the 35-36-minute mark. Because of the death of one of the brothers, this family are asking questions to the heavens. One is doubt- sort of C.S. Lewis’ “The Problem of Pain”- the scripture from the book of Job opens the film- what follows from there is the pictorial story of creation. It is awesome- both muscular and poetic. It is in this sequence that Malick employs the talents of Douglas Trumbull.

Apparently Malick was dissatisfied with the computer-generated options. This section, the visual and narrative ambition involved, is one reason that so many cinephiles recall Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey when discussing to The Tree of Life. Trumbull last worked on Blade Runner in 1982.

  • Malick highlights the juxtaposition of grace and nature throughout. During one sequence there is the calm of the streams and the trees, but Malick is always quick to contrast that with a violent explosion- like one dinosaur stepping on the neck of another. “Father, Mother, always you wrestle inside me. Always you will.”
  • Malick’s style is this Eisenstein-like low average shot length (ASL). This not an auteur employing an occasional cutaway. The music (operas, church choirs) is extremely important to the impressionistic visuals, as is the poetic musings of the voice-over. But there are no more than a few scenes where two characters exchange dialogue. There are arguments at the family dinner table, talks about loss (one with Fiona Shaw talking to Chastain I recall) but these are glimpses…. there is no shot, reverse-shot dialogue.
  • The Tree of Life is always religious work—the young Jack is playing with two alligators on Noah’s ark. Chastain’s character literally levitates at the 54-minute mark.
  • This is feather in the cap for the resumes of both Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain as Malick’s camera eavesdrops through open doors, open windows, and down their purposefully typical street. Pitt is the stern father, Chastain is the forgiving and warm mother. Pitt hardens his jaw in a way I have never seen in his work before or since. This is largely a silent movie-like non-verbal performance – all posture, posing, facial expressions and physical acting. They have three boys, they go to church, play ( all of Malick’s works just about have many scenes of frivolity), they eat meatloaf. Much of this is improvised- like the scene of the butterfly landing on Chastain. All of this is captured in Emmanuel Lubezki’s constantly moving camera with Malick’s trademark magic hour natural lighting often present setting the glow for the photography. There is a sort of chapter on innocence where Jack is in this beautiful Eden-like bubble. But soon, Malick cuts to a criminal being taking away in their small town. They cut to Pitt saying his mother is naïve, a young boy drowns, there is a boy who is a burn victim. The town sprays a fog of DDT on young boys in the street. Jack steals a negligee and floats it down the river to wash his hands clean of the sin. He shoots a BB gun at the brother who looks like Brad Pitt (great casting- as is the casting of the young Jack played by Hunter McCracken– he looks like Sean Penn) and is a talented musician (Pitt plays a failed musician) and is clearly the father’s favorite.

This Jack character, without much dialogue, is as complex as the Mason character in Richard Linklater’s splendid Boyhood (2014).

  • The photography in The Tree of Life belongs in an art institute somewhere. Though I think it’s a myth that this is vastly superior to his previous films, or 2005’s The New World. There is the sun pouring through the laundry.

Malick goes to the doorway shot often to create a frame within his camera frame. Once there is Chastain lounging peaceably (here), once the Pitt-lookalike son is playing guitar, another time Pitt is coming home from work framed by the door.

  • Penn resurfaces after he’s been gone for two hours. Emmanuel Lubezki claims there is an entire movie about him to be made from what has been left on floor in the editing room. So here, it seems like Penn is the victim of Malick’s editing style (as Adrien Brody was in The Thin Red Line). Malick actually employs five editors here.

During the sort of prologue, Penn’s Jack is on the beach in what appears to be an afterlife. Past and present embrace, mostly during the magic hour (though this shot is not) with operatic vocalizing accompanying them.

The notably breathtaking sequence of the salt beach at the 130-minute mark with the camera tracking behind Chastain as she blots out the sun

in all but a handful of films ever created, this would easily be the standout image

Score one for Cannes over the Academy- this won the Palme D’Or in 2011.

  • “The only other film I’ve seen with this boldness of vision is Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” and it lacked Malick’s fierce evocation of human feeling.” – Ebert https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/the-tree-of-life-2011
  • Given the legendary long-gestation period between films (this one is six years after 2005’s The New World) and with the knowledge of what would follow, you almost wish Malick had just skipped To the Wonder, Knight of Cups, and Song to Song and just spent eight years making A Hidden Life.
  • An undisputable masterpiece