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The Tree of Life

The Tree of Life: Exploring the Meaning of Life

  • Brad PittJessica Chastain...
  • Drama
  • Out now
  • Terrence Malick
reviewed by
Will Roth
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The Tree of Life: Exploring the Meaning of Life

Few films
in recent years have provoked such varied and passionate responses as Tree of Life; viewers tend to either
absolutely love it or write it off as pretentious garbage. The film, which won
the 2011 Palme d’Or at Cannes, is anchored by the story of an American family,
the O’Brien’s, and specifically Mr. O’Brien (Pitt) who struggles to raise his
three boys in Waco, Texas in the 1950s while pursuing his own dreams of
wealth. 

However, right
from the first scene, it becomes clear that Tree
of Life
has no intention of telling a straightforward, linear family
narrative. Instead, the film begins with
a quote from the Book of Job, which is followed by a calm voiceover of Mrs.
O’Brien (Chastain) saying that the fundamental tension in life is between grace
and nature. 

Immediately
thereafter, we see an older Mrs. O’Brien receiving the news that one of her sons
has been killed in war. For the
subsequent 150 minutes, Tree of Life
splices together long scenes of the O’Brien household with scenes of the
universe’s creation, the origins of life on Earth, and a present-day depiction
of eldest son Jack (Penn), who is haunted by his complicated relationship with
his father. For this reason, at the
very least, Tree of Life offers a
truly distinct viewing experience.

In terms of
trying to get his audience to think about the bigger picture, Malick chose the
most extreme technique, placing the meaning of our individual lives in the
broadest and deepest context imaginable. 
For this same reason, Tree of Life
feels eerily personal.

If you have
seen any other films by Terrence Malick, such as The Thin Red Line (1998) or Days
of Heaven
(1978), you have a decent idea of what to expect.  Long-panning shots of nature, close-ups of the
characters’ faces, and of course Malick’s signature shots through the leaves of
trees make up the aesthetic of the film. 
That isn’t to say that the visual effect is clichéd.  In fact, Malick worked with a number of
Hollywood special effect veterans to turn mundane objects such as spilt milk
into nebulous, impressionistic reflections of existential uncertainty. 

In short, Tree of Life is not for everyone. If the first hour bores you; simply stop
watching, because it sure does not get any faster or easier. On the other hand, for those who find
themselves captivated by the sweeping cinematic style will likely find that the
story lands on some appropriately existential ideas of closure and peace.

Check out Tree of Life for a meditative piece of
visual art. Not only is it an absolute
original; it also takes advantage of the opportunities provided by the medium
of filmmaking in a way that is worth celebrating in itself. 

Like This? Try

Melancholia, Babel, 21 Grams

360 Tip

Heath Ledger was Malick's first choice to play the lead, and Colin Farrell was also considered, before Brad Pitt took over.

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