- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- “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
Will A Hidden Life be flying up in the rankings with your recent revisit?
I love how this is a post about one of THE greatest films and all I can do is talk about his next one.
@Zane- I wouldn’t say flying up the rankings
This one took a 3 viewings to really sink in, I posted on the Malick page that “I had trouble the first 2 times with the back and forth between the birth of the universe and the O’Brien Family. I respected the idea of juxtaposing the story of the entire Universe with something as infinitesimal as one random family in Texas and found in brilliant from the 1st viewing. But it was not until this most recent viewing where I found myself completely engaged in every aspect of the film and it was magnificent.”
For anyone who has only viewed this film only once and had trouble I would definitely recommend sticking with it. Like 2001, there is so much to digest here that multiple viewings are absolutely necessary, I don’t care how intelligent and/or film knowledgeable you are there is no way to absorb everything with one viewing.
Interesting and maybe not all that surprising that Malick has a bachelor’s and master’s in philosophy; the bachelor’s from Harvard and the master’s degree from Oxford, 2 pretty good schools! Who said a philosophy degree is useless? ha
« Poor boy… Poor boy »
The best movie of the decade, top 50-30 of all time for me. Pitt’s character reminds me of my father.
[…] The Tree of Life – Malick […]
Has anyone seen the 188 min extended cut? Link below
I just watched this film again yesterday, with my sister and her boyfriend, both were impressed. I have it on Criterion Blue Ray and noticed that there is a 2nd disc which is the extended cut. I have not checked out yet but I’m planning on it sometime, curious if anyone else has watched?
@James Trapp- I have not as of yet
@Drake – until a couple days ago I was not even aware of it’s existence. I initially assumed the 2nd disc was special features.
A rewatch of Tree of Life was my first film of 2023, felt even more spellbinding this time. Beyond the obvious photographic marvels and supremely ambitious ideas, the film wields the powerful tool of the montage in so many great ways. It sunk in a bit more this time just how perfectly paced and entrancing everything was. I don’t necessarily agree with the people you see around who claim that this is an “entirely new type of film” or anything like that, but rather I believe it just pulls everything off with such grace and attention to detail and that’s what makes it special. Truly a spellbinding watch and a great way to kick off the calendar year.
@ga – Wow- you can write- “beyond the obvious photographic marvels and supremely ambitious ideas, the film wields the powerful tool of the montage in so many great ways.” – Really well said.