The Tree of Life (2011)

Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life” is a mad, glorious, ambitious, beautiful mess of a film. Ostensibly it is about a middle-aged man, played by Sean Penn, recalling his youth growing up in Texas, living with two younger siblings and his parents, the tough, stern Brad Pitt and the loving, affectionate Jessica Chastain. But it is much more than that; it is really a meditation on life in its entirety. Penn’s life is placed within a grand cosmic scale, the film breathtakingly showing us the creation of the Universe itself, and the emergence of life on this planet. It also shows us the beauty and ugliness of human life, as the boys parents instill in them both love and fear.

Parts of this film are stunning; the creation of the Universe and the forging of the Earth are truly spectacular. More impressive is the films centre-piece; the 1950s American family life, the shadow of Pitt’s aggressive father looming over everything. But this isn’t a gritty, kitchen-sink rendering. Like the aforementioned cosmic set-pieces, this is presented as grandiose. Boy-hood playing becomes as profound as the emergence of life, the back garden as epic a stage as a galaxy. But it is not all slow-motion gloss; the harsh realities of life are not airbrushed, as the boys content with death, loss, and fear of their own father. His failings too are rendered with utmost clarity.

For me this film is about how everything is sacred. The film clearly treats every second, every person, every thing as a thing of beauty. Every fleeting moment of life, whether it be the birth of a star or a family meal is as important and intertwined into the fabric of being as everything else. All these moments have an effect on how things unfold, no matter how large or small. The fragility and smallness of human life is blown up onto a grand a scale as the creation of everything itself. The film opens with the question of grief, and responds by showing us the vast complexity of everything, by some way of a non-verbal answer.

It is also about a lot more things, but I’ll have to think about them.

(spoilers after the jump)

The film, however, is not perfect. It is, as I say, a bit of a mess. A disjointed narrative, coupled with a distracting narration, threaten to derail it. The opening sequences flit across time and space a bit too quickly, and the film struggles to gain a rhythm. When it does settle down, however, it comes into its own, transfixing us.

For me though, its final sequence is its biggest flaw. Having brought closure on one chapter in the families life, we see Penn as a man again, pondering his existence. Malick then, with the same epic vision as before, brings us the destruction of the Earth, just as he brought us its birth. For me, this would have been the perfect moment to end this odd, but beautiful exploration of life in its totality, placing this one mans life and his memories in its correct place in the Universe. Instead, he tacks on a final sequence, which takes the film in a much more overtly Christian direction. The film is clearly spiritual, but generally agnostic in tone, until this point. But the final scenes, involving past loved ones being reunited, choral devotions to Jesus, kissing of feet, and a general parade of Christian imagery, drive the point home too hard. This is not to say there is anything wrong with the film being Christian; it clearly is and is the more interesting for it perhaps. But its just that these scenes are too blunt, too obvious in their imagery.

There are one or two moments just prior to this sequence when the film cuts to black, and I wished it had ended there.

Still, it is a thought provoking thing of beauty. Messy beauty. But utmost respect to the director for attempting this grand, mad vision of life in its totality, we need more films like this.