Review of The Tree of Life


Movie Review: "The Tree of Life" --

Rating: PG-13
Length: 139 minutes
Release Date: May 27, 2011
Directed by: Terrence Malik
Genre: Drama
Rating: 4 out 5 stars

"The Tree of Life," the latest film from Terrence Malik, director of such films as "The Thin Red Line," "The New World" and "Badlands," explores all aspects of existence through the lens of a single family. "The Tree of Life" won the Palme d'Or at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival and received Academy Award nominations for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Cinematography. The film features a strong cast, led by Brad Pitt, Sean Penn and Jessica Chastain. The beautiful cinematography creates a world that is something to behold, even if it can be a bit disturbing.

The film has two shortcomings that should be mentioned, though. The characters could use a bit more depth, and the narrative is unfocused. The narrative especially is a bit of mess. It spreads across the entirety of time and space, from the Big Bang to the start of life on Earth to life in a single American family. It can be a little disorienting. The characters, although compelling, could use a little more development. But these are only minor flaws when compared to the scope, message and beauty of the rest of the film.

Malik offers audiences something different from any other filmmaker working today. In most films, an unfocused narrative and character that leaves you wanting more would make for an extremely uninteresting film. "The Tree of Life" needs neither to hold interest. Malik seeks to do and say more in this film than many filmmakers try in their entire careers. The sprawling shots of the birth and expansion of the Universe and of early life on Earth give the audience the proper perspective for the study of the family that follows. This sequence is beautiful to see. Perhaps, the film's greatest strength is its cinematography. The film was shot by Emmanuel Lubezki. His images manage to capture the feel of the story perfectly, and they are quite often breathtakingly beautiful.

The study of the life of the O'Brien family gets to the heart of what the film is trying to explore. At the beginning of the film, the words nature and grace are whispered. We see nature and how it constantly takes from us all. The O'Brien family loses a child. We see another one of children, Jack, played by Sean Penn, as a middle aged man still struggling with the death of and the relationship with his father.

Mr. O'Brien, played by Brad Pitt, is an extremely strict disciplinarian and, on occasion, abusive. He wants his children to be better than he is and wants them to be tough enough to face the nature of life. He begins to mourn where his life has taken him and his failures. At one point, Mr. O'Brien apologizes to Jack for being so hard on him, but his son's response is unexpected-he understands. Jack is very similar to his father. They are both strong willed. They both care deeply for their families. They are both lost.

Mrs. O'Brien possesses the grace that is needed for the family to stay together. Her gentle and understanding nature creates a sharp contrast to her husband. If Mr. O'Brien wants his children to be strong, his wife wants her children to have something more important. She understands that there is more to a successful life than strength, which is something her husband comes to understand only much later. The film expresses this through the lens of Christianity, but the sentiment is universal. All of us face decisions every day that can make us more or less humane. Do we help those who are weaker than us? Do we ignore them? Do we hurt them?

"The Tree of Life" seeks nothing less than to explain existence. It asks why we are here. Does what we do in our lives matter? We live in this world of beauty and wonder only to be abused and for our children and siblings to die an early death. At the end of the film, Malik tells us that, eventually, we will understand.

If you haven't seen a film by Terrence Malik, "The Tree of Life" may come as a shock. He has made only five films in just less than 40 years, and they flow more like poetry than they do prose. They can be dense, though. However, if watched with an open mind and patience, they can be extremely rewarding. This movie offers more than explosions and 3-D gimmicks. It offers an honest study on life with all its struggles and beauty, and it is definitely worth seeing, perhaps more than once.