The Tree of Life

Terrence Malik’s latest film has been the source of a great deal of controversy, provoking sharply divided opinions. (Several days ago, a friend of mine posted on Facebook about how much he hated it.) My own feeling immediately after watching this film was similar to how I felt after watching Enter the Void, which was that what I had just seen was perhaps too much to absorb in a single viewing. There are many different kinds of images in this film, and their meanings and connections to one another are not always clear. Malick seems to be using them to try to convey philosophical and possibly even religious ideas.

The film is basically about an architect, Jack (Sean Penn), who sometimes reflects upon his experiences in life, sometimes thinks about the creation of the Earth and the origins of life, and at other times is simply fantasizing. A large chunk of the film is devoted to Jack’s experiences growing up in Waco, Texas during the 1950’s. (It so happens that Malick grew up in Waco during the 1950’s. It seems reasonable to assume that this film is at least partially autobiographical, though Malick is clearly trying to do more than just depict scenes from his life. By the way, Sean Penn is a little young for his role, but that’s not a big problem.) Jack’s father (Brad Pitt) is a stern disciplinarian, while his mother (Jessica Chastain) is indulgent and forgiving. Young Jack (Hunter McCracken, who looks like an adolescent Sean Penn) sometimes thinks about killing his father, while feeling close to his mother. What lifts this above Freudian cliché is that the characters seem real and complex. (Chastain and Pitt both give very good performances.)

As I mentioned before, part of the film is devoted to a depiction of the creation of the Earth and the evolution of life. (The special effects, which are very good, were partly done by Douglas Trumbull, who worked on 2001: A Space Odyssey over forty years ago.) The juxtaposition of this with the scenes from Jack’s childhood is a bit jarring. It seems to me that Malick is trying to do two different things at the same time here. First, he is trying to convey the idea that Jack’s efforts to make sense out of his childhood are part of his efforts to try to make sense out of existence itself. Second, Malick is trying to reconcile evolution with an essentially religious view of the world. (This puts him in opposition to a lot of people in our society.) The film is peppered with religious ideas. It opens with a quote from the Book of Job. Both of Jack’s parents are deeply religious. His mother sounds almost mystical at times. In what I can only assume is one of Jack’s fantasies, we see his mother giving water to a man who has just been arrested by the police. (It may be that Jack’s parents represent the dual nature of religion, which is both judgmental and a source of solace.)

The film ends with a scene of Jack wandering on a beach, where he meets his parents and other people from his past. No doubt this represents Jack’s reconciliation with his past.

The Tree of Life is a great film. It shows that cinema can be more than just a storytelling medium. It can also be meditative, evocative and impressionistic. Films can challenge us and make us think as well as entertain us. I highly recommend seeing this film.

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