It took two films prior to The Tree of Life for me to understand Terrance Malick’s style of filmmaking. He is a painter of atmosphere and tone. With this knowledge, I can say that The Tree of Life is a fantastic piece of filmmaking that does not lay its concepts out bare. Instead, Malick creates a conscious form of pacing that challenges you to find the meaning within the eras that Malick presents.
The narrative is narrow but the concept is considerably wide and vast. After a brief quote from the Book of Job, The Tree of Life cuts cross three worlds in this predominately non-narrative film. First, we experience the many phenomenon that exist in our universe, then the creation of our planet, and last, how our species exists in an advanced civilization. The film portrays how significant insignificance is and vise versa. How there is balance and chaos in all the structures of life; on our earth, and in our universe. In the current, Jack O’Brien (Sean Penn) tells his father over the phone how he continues to think about his brother who died at the age of nineteen. The film then follows Jack reminiscing about his upbringing in 1950s Waco, Texas. Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt) raises his three boys in the suburbs during this time. He is strict in his attempts to discipline his children, a tendency that begins to bend and get more aggressive over time.
For roughly a third of the film, we are provided with cosmic events that happen in our universe and how these events are not too different from how our theoretical pre-history world existed. The main narrative harkens back to these themes seeing the difficulties a family surviving in 1950s Waco, Texas. The concepts of money and fighting to have the greenest grass in the neighborhood are insignificant compared to the greater universe. Yet, at that moment, at that time, Mr. O’Brien wants the grass green enough to compete with the neighbors.
Malick exposes how our First-world civilized society chooses to hoist materialistic tendencies as the predominant measure of success. Effectively, this strive for success causes the patriarch of the family focus his frustrations on his family and terrorizing his three boys and his wife. The Tree of Life reveals how our society’s structure has open wounds that leaves our kind behind in a successful evolution. The theme of open wounds begins with the dinosaurs who suffered from fatal wounds in the pre-history segment. These monsters existed with their wounds open to the world, unable to hide their disability from other species. In the present, Jack recollects on his childhood in the 1950s and reveals his own open wound that prevents him from forgiving or moving on after his brother’s death. The Tree of Lifeis about how all these eras, cosmic events, and structures constantly attempt to find equilibrium after new cause and effect sequences. The treachery in beauty and the beauty in treachery. In my own interpretation, this film suggests that there are universal balances across the universe that evolve in a pulsating form (born, thrive, die) based on their inherent structures.
The religious allegories and metaphors in the film are blatant but not kitsch. I am uneducated in most biblical stories and it would be unfair to not mention it. Judo-Christian values are certainly a factor in the film, but the film itself is rather religious in itself. Be it your spirit, soul, vibes, or what have you, The Tree of Life raises goosebumps visually, aesthetically, and thematically. It is wholly philosophical, which may alienate spectators looking for typical Summer cinema-fare. On the other side of the fence, there will be cinephiles who will see the film as the perfect example of a modern anti-Hollywood, anti-3D film that makes use of the medium’s abilities without adding the glitz and gimmicks.
The Tree of Life is a cinematic painting and poem meant to be interpreted by the individual, and the film will mean different things to different spectators. Malick has democratized the screen by creating an atmosphere that is rarely seen even today. He connects the most unlike bodies and objects in a formalist sense, but the meanings of the connections are ambiguous, again, pointing to the audience to derive meaning and substance on their own. Loved or hated, this film is an near instant classic and will enter cinematic canons left and right.