Movie Review – The Tree of Life

This is a movie that I have been talking about for a while, mainly with myself and Dexter who is only interested in licking himself and not paying attention.  But I have posted trailers on Facebook, featured it in two of my articles, and followed the movie as much as I could.  My general interest in the movie is because of the director, Terrence Malick.  Malick is one of the most reclusive directors out there, never giving interviews and although he has been making movies since the early 70’s, he has only made 6 movies to date.   So when a director like this decides to make another movie, there is more interest devoted to it than most movies will ever receive.  I fell into this category of obsession because I was interested in seeing a movie that took almost 3 years to edit and piece together.  I have seen almost all of Malick’s films, but when the trailer first appeared over a year ago, I was fascinated about a movie that told me little about the movie.

So to my surprise and excitement, our local art theater was graced with the opportunity to show the movie.  Before the movie began, there was a special introduction with former (sad) Kansas City Star film critic Bob Butler, giving us a bit of insight into the movie.  He prepped the audience for a movie that we may not be expecting in terms of length, subject and overall flow of the movie.

Plot Synopsis:

The film follows the life journey of the eldest son, Jack, through the innocence of childhood to his disillusioned adult years as he tries to reconcile a complicated relationship with his father (Brad Pitt).  Jack (played as an adult by Sean Penn) finds himself a lost soul in the modern world, seeking answers to the origins and meaning of life while questioning the existence of faith.  – Official synopsis from Fox Searchlight


This review will be a bit different in terms of talking about the different parts of the movie.  Normally I would go on to talk about the actors, story, direction, visual and score.  But The Tree of Life is a different movie altogether.  It’s not really a movie in the traditional sense with a plot/story line and conventional dialogue.  The Tree of Life is, from what Bob Butler has indicated, a take on Terrence Malick’s life.  The movie is set during his youth, shot in his hometown, and is about memories from his life.  This is a reflection on life and what our memories and experiences mean in the grand scheme of life.  The movie presents us with a non-linear story where each scene acts like a memory that we recall from a time long ago.  There is no story dialogue, but rather small whispers of dialogue that seem as if they are prayers the characters are saying to themselves.  They are used to reflect on the scene and give us a sense that we are glimpsing into their memories.

While the story is about reflection and examining life’s experience, Malick gives us images of the creation of the universe.  We see the beginnings of a star and the Big Bang, jumping to the creating of our planet Earth and the early stages of land and sea formation.  Life soon blooms from the smallest organism and thus life begins on Earth.  The images of the creation of the galaxy are used as a frame for the movie, where we all eventually play a part in the Earth’s existence.  The second story line is Sean Penn’s character, Jack O’Brien; the eldest son of the O’Brien’s and is a man who is trying to figure out his place in life.  He talks to his father on the phone and this triggers his memories of his youth.  What we see in the film with the whole family is his time growing up in O’Brien household and his experiences in life with his mother, father, and brothers.  The third and prominent story line is that of the O’Brien family in a much earlier time in their life.  Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien, played back Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain, welcome the birth of Jack and then the other sons quickly follow in life.  Mr. O’Brien is a stern father and at sometimes, abusive in his upbringing of the children.  Mr. O’Brien does have a strong nurturing love for his children, but his parenting is meant to prepare the children for a better life than the one he has.  Mrs. O’Brien is the empathetic mother, who brings about the children’s love of life and teaches them to be good to one another.  She is nurturing and loving, while being the counterbalance to the husbands parenting skills.

The scene of Jack growing up in the small town in Texas is where we see the seeds of his innocence taking shape.  The father projects onto his children his shortcomings in life.  Mr. O’Brien covets wealth, laments his failure to be a musician and wants his children to be better than him, but also to have a sense of pride and reverence.  The way he goes about raising the children is stern but does it out of love, even if the methods are harsh, such as the dinner scenes and his punishment for disobedience.  But what Mr. O’Brien doesn’t realize is that his actions in turn change Jack’s perception of life.  He molds Jack to better than him, even if he does it out of love.  In reality, what father doesn’t want something better for his children?  Who doesn’t want their children to have a successful job, money to take care of their problems, and in general not be like them?  His harsh treatment has Jack growing up resenting him and changing his feelings during his youth, the time in life where we are figuring out who we are.  The mother is this counterbalance to Jack’s life, wanting him to come into his own and be who he wants to be.  She only wants him to be a good person, not to himself but others.  Not to grow up resenting people because they are better off, but understanding that he has a place in life.  Her goal isn’t to have Jack or the other children fear life, but embrace it.  Her whispers are like prayers and comforting in the scenes where it is her and the children.  It is almost as if when Mr. O’Brien is away, that is truly the time that they feel free and love life.

For me, the movie is an examination on all of our childhoods.  We look to our parents to guide us through life and the difficult times that we experience.  I felt at times during the movie that what we were seeing was the pivotal moments in Jack’s life.  These moments lead us to the final closing scene where the adult Jack goes through a spiritual journey to find out that his memories and life is what he makes of them.  Finding the happiness in his youth and understanding that what his father taught and did to him in his youth was out of love and his difficulty in expressing that love.  Jack learns to embrace his life and the gifts that his parents have given him and accept his place in life.  Not as a cog mind you, but an individual that plays a part in the bigger picture of life.  He plays a role in the life of his brother and parents as they come together in the end.

While it may seem that I have a lot to say about the movie, it is difficult to put into words what I feel about it.  This is a deeply personal movie from Malick and his presentation on life and the experiences he had as a child might not be something that we can sympathize with.  We all have different experiences in life that make us who we are.  The emotions we invoke during the movie aren’t born out of what takes place in the screen before us, but rather from us recalling our childhood.  We know that parents mean well and want the best for us, but they too are human and prone to temper flair ups and tantrums.  As children we witness love, anger, cruelty, and happiness.  But we learn to grow up with these feelings and internalize the actions and move on with our lives.  We shouldn’t dwell on what happens, but rather look back and realize that those actions have played a part in who we are.

The movie is beautiful from the forming of the galaxy and earth, down to the Midwestern town where the protagonists live out their lives.  Malick created a familiar scene for us to fill in with our experiences while we watch a story about growing up and the understanding of our life.  Every scene is beautifully framed and evokes strong emotional ties.  The music enhance the movie wonderfully with such ethereal sounding, operatic music.  I felt that I was watching something more than a movie, but life taking form shape.  I don’t begrudge the long running time as I was invested in every scene and little nuances of the story.  I did feel emotionally drained from a lot of the imagery that was used, mainly the heavy religious undertones.  The small whispers during the each scene that evoke a sense of prayer and the final scene on the ocean bank with people from all walks of life.  The final scene acts as an allegory for heaven, where all people come together and be at peace with one another.  All our angst and painful memories are gone as we all embrace each other in harmony.

In all this evocative imagery and storytelling, the movie is about the culmination of our life and lives of others.  The use of the forming of the planets humbles us in knowing that all these little things come together and shape the world and universe as we know.  We are but a speck of dust in the vastness of the universe.  That is not to say that our lives are insignificant, but that all of our little experiences in life make up the big picture.  In some ways, we can never truly feel the way we did about life when we were a child coming into our own.  We grow up and become complacent with life, but we grow wiser and understanding.  The grown up Jack comes to this realization as he standing arm and arm with his parents at the edge of the beach.  They all embrace and Jack hugs his father that means more than all the past anger and resentment he has towards him, because he has forgiven him for his actions.  It is this understanding that makes the movie impactful to me.  You live, learn and shape your life on what you experienced.  Don’t hold a grudge or anger toward what has happened to you, just know that you are a part of something bigger in life.

To close out the review, I have had a hard time explaining to people what the movie is about.  Mainly that is because this movie meant something personal to me as it will to you and everybody else.  You life and past experiences are what make you the person you are today.  I may share some similarities, but ultimately yours are unique to you and you only.  Malick created a personal movie, one not only to him but the people that see it.  I can’t present you a bite sized story line or what it all means, since your viewing of the movie will be different than mine.  That is what makes this a wonderful movie, it’s one where we all get something different out of it and the meaning is specific to us.  I am humbled that Malick would give us such a personal movie, as it is a risk to present something like this to the movie going public since there isn’t an easy way to sell it.  No plot, no real structural dialogue, but something meaningful and unique that sets it apart from all the rest.  Go see this movie.  It is an experience that allows you to reflect on your life and what makes it unique.  Don’t fret about the run time or lack of typical film structure, but marvel at the elegance and care that Malick took to present this movie to us.  It has been years in the making and this sort of care and time should be appreciated by all.

No Rating given

About Nick
I am just another blogger putting his thoughts into a website. My love is movies so most of my musings will be movie related. I work as an online marketer for an advertising company and when I am not earning a paycheck, I moonlight as a vigilante film blogger.

2 Responses to Movie Review – The Tree of Life

  1. Pingback: Awards Season – 69th Annual Golden Globe Awards « Another Plot Device

  2. Pingback: The 84th Annual Academy Awards « Another Plot Device

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