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Movie Review: The Tree of Life

Films opening this weekend:
Bad Teacher - Maple Ridge; Market Arcade; Transit, Elmwood, Galleria, Quaker, Hollywood Regals; Transit Drive-In; Flix - REVIEW
Cars 2 - Maple Ridge; Market Arcade; Transit, Elmwood, Galleria, Quaker, Hollywood Regals; Transit Drive-In; Flix
Cracks - Eastern Hills Dipson - REVIEW
The Tree of Life - Amherst Dipson

Auteur Terrence Malick’s trademarked voiceover is often used when the image-driven composition that is The Tree of Life's needs words. Here, the words are meant as an internal question posed by young Jack, who is frustrated with the life he’s trapped in and the hypocrisy ruling it. Both his religion and his family fail him at every turn. As we see throughout the film, misfortune does not discriminate as it "sends flies to wounds that He should heal." One could see this as the underlying theme of Malick’s opus—the strife we must contend with and accept in order to live.

Having very recently gone through Malick’s sparse oeuvre, it was easy to see his progression towards this minimalist tone, which uses imagery to evoke emotion, and sound to swell and penetrate the viewer's sensibilities. With The Tree of Life, the artist has edited together his largest montage, juxtaposing nature’s splendor with humanity’s imperfection. Through the internal musings of his characters, we hear the director's questions about faith, God, death, and immortality. Are we abandoned playthings or precious creatures meant for a path of greatness? We aren’t as unique as we may hope if this film is any indication.

As soon as Jack's question is asked, Malick whisks us away into an interlude of creation, the colors and biomorphic pulsations of life being formed, cells combining, separating, and eventually breathing forth existence. We watch dinosaurs roaming the land, giant beasts of pure physicality wiped away by a tiny rock cascading into the Earth. Their extinction made way for our own rule, the length of our stay unknown and most likely much shorter than we'd prefer.

Everyone hopes and strives to be something great, to make a lasting impression on society and be remembered forever. As the eldest son of the O’Briens, (Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain), Jack feels the full force of their weaknesses and failures. O’Brien is a proud man, but not one without a capacity to love. One moment he is chastising the boys, a whirlwind of malice, and the next a smiling father in awe of the lifeblood he created, bending for a kiss.These boys—from youngest to oldest: Tye Sheridan, Laramie Eppler, and Hunter McCracken—are left to cultivate their own feelings of love, weeding through the pain and suffering to find the sparkling moments of beauty hidden between. (Like Malick’s cross-cut scenes of water flowing over a fall, or of swarming insects ebbing and weaving through the dusk sky.) Pitt’s O’Brien—a devastating visage of a man attempting to reconcile strength, love, and humility—does his best, unable to express his feelings or to hide the glint of disappointment when his sons show the softness of their mother. McCracken’s Jack shows the pent up anger where love should reside. His inability to be what his father wants and the slow realization he is most definitely his father’s son only pushes him deeper.


When Jack is an adult (portrayed by Sean Penn in an almost mute performance), the wrinkles of contemplation and memory are wrought on his face as the journey leads him towards a revelation of redemptive forgiveness. Scenes of his relationship with his brother (Eppler), of the compassionate love given by his mother—Chastain is revelatory with an infectious smile and heart-wrenching sadness—and his father flood over him, stranding Jack on the dry, sandy landscape of isolated and unreleased anger. The memories begin to bring humanity back as the walls of hate slowly crumble. Only when Jack allows himself to forgive—his father, his mother, his brothers, his God—can he open his heart and regain his faith.

Tree of Life is an expressively poetic tome of unbridled life seen through inescapable memories. There is no tree we must aspire to find, no elixir holding the time necessary to discover truth. No, our immortality exists in us. If I took anything from Malick’s film—which must be absorbed and interpreted differently by each viewer—it’s that love is ours to give. We live on through those we touch, but only if they let us in, despite the pain we may cause, or the misguided actions we selfishly perform.

The Tree of Life 10/10 | ★ ★ ★ ★

[1] From left: Jessica Chastain, Tye Sheridan, and Brad Pitt in The Tree of Life. PHOTO CREDITS MERIE WALLACE TM & (c) 2011 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All rights reserved.
[2] Sean Penn in the Tree of Life. PHOTO CREDITS: MERIE WALLACE TM & (c) 2011 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All rights reserved.

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