Review – The Tree of Life

While questioning the purpose of the human race’s existence is always a reliable method making your brain implode, it does help keep my mind occupied when I have to drive long distances. Is it possible for a film to encapsulate the entire human experience as well as the beginning of time? It’s certainly a bold undertaking and one that renowned director Terrence Malick seemingly pulls off in his new film ‘The Tree of Life’. The latest offering from Malick boldly recounts the origin of the universe while focusing on Jack (Sean Penn), a businessman reflecting on his childhood in America during the 1950s. Jack’s father (Brad Pitt) dishes out tough love while his mother (Jessica Chastain) gives nothing but unconditional love. I know, you’re scratching your head thinking, “Wait, origin of the universe and period family drama all rolled into one film?” But here lies the brilliance of ‘The Tree of Life’, as Malick successfully tells the greatest story of all – life.

Amazing visuals, performances and direction push this film forward in a way that will affect you in an unexpected way and challenge your view of modern cinema. ‘The Tree of Life’ isn’t a masterpiece, but it comes close to it, only blemished by some indulgent filmmaking and a bloated run time.

The biggest strength of ‘The Tree of Life’ is the way the story is told with a strong focus on visuals. There is minimal dialogue, which might be a bit unsettling for a mainstream movie goer (like myself). As an audience, we’re used to having dialogue-driven plot spoon fed to us in Hollywood films and I’m the first to admit I love a snappy one-liner, like in ‘Predator’ when Arnie pins a bad guy to a wall by throwing a large knife and then quips “stick around”. That said, it’s refreshing in ‘The Tree of Life’ to see the images on screen push the story forward with the majority of it open to interpretation by the audience.

There is a variety of different visuals on screen, which is amazing to behold, ranging from a recreation of the big bang and the creation of the universe, to different shots of beautifully designed architecture. The splendor of nature is also brilliantly showcased, with breathtaking sunsets, cave formations and waterfalls filling up the screen and reminding us of the amazing world we live in.

However, Malick does get carried away with some of the visuals, spending way too much time lingering on a tree or shots of the wind blowing through the grass. At times it feels like you’re just watching a glorified screensaver that is no different from the default collection of rainbows and mountains that show up on your iMac.

There are also outstanding performances from Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain. Their performances hit a nerve by conveying so much emotion without uttering a word. In one scene, Pitt is speaking on the phone while standing on a runway where all you can hear is the roar of the propeller of a plane. Without hearing a word of the conversation you can tell Pitt’s character has just been given devastating news. Pitt goes from strength to strength in the film, every scene he’s in is electrifying and come award season he definitely deserves a few gongs for his performance. Meanwhile, Chastain has an angelic presence on screen and she perfectly balances the aggression that comes from Pitt’s character. She manages to show great love and sadness effortlessly, and her depiction of motherhood is one of the best I have ever seen on film.

A big surprise to come out of this film is the performances of the child actors. A lot of the children in this film get more screen time than the star attractions Pitt and Penn. The good news is that they manage to provide some of the film’s highlights, including an interaction between a new born baby and his slightly older brother. Malick captures an amazing moment in the study of life that incorporates brotherhood, life, love and family all in one moment. It’s fair to say the kids are not really acting and are simply being filmed, but Malick has put the pieces together and lets it play out in an amazing fashion.

For all its strengths, ‘The Tree of Life’ is just too long. The films impact would have been stronger had the audience not been dragged through a lot of lengthy sequences that didn’t service the plot. While on the topic of plot, it’s fair to say that ‘The Tree of Life’ has a very thin story. But that said, Malick is clearly trying to tell such a grand tale that individual events and actions pale in significance.

It’s open to interpretation, but I believe Malick is trying to show us how amazing and wide-reaching the universe is. He establishes that planet Earth has been around for millions of years and the human race is merely a speck on the history of time. The point that hits hardest is that, despite our relative insignificance, our experience is as grand as the design. Millions of years of evolution have physically brought us to this point in human history, but the emotion of love and institution of family are what makes life worth living.

‘The Tree of Life’ is not a film for everyone and may come across as something that could have maybe been used as a torture method at Guantanamo Bay. Film students, academics and friends will fall out over this film and dissect it for years to come, which is one of the best things about it. Open your mind and take what you want from the experience, Malick has made one of the most openly interpretative films of all time. It’s a return to classic filmmaking that puts emphasis on engaging visuals and I have to give Malick credit for taking a huge risk.


The Popcorn Junkie

The Tree of Life was released in Australia on June 30, 2011 from Icon.