The Tree of Life

The world according to God

Terence Malick’s latest—arriving a relatively snappy six years after his last picture—is a movie about first things: the meaning of existence, the ways of God, the bewildering sorrows of the human condition. The Tree of Life is spectacularly beautiful in its contemplation of eternal wonders—from the roiling creation of the universe to the gentle settling of a butterfly on the up-reaching hand of a suburban housewife (one of the director’s most remarkable found moments). While the film is centrally concerned with a Texas family in the 1950s, the movie it most strongly recalls is Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Running well over two hours, Malick’s exquisitely speculative picture might not seem to offer a lively night out at the multiplex (where few are likely to find it playing anyway); but it’s a hypnotic and—rarest of feats—spiritually enthralling experience.

It begins (appropriately, as we soon realize) with a quotation from the harrowing Book of Job. Then we see a nebulous aurora glowing in the primordial void of space, the beginning of all beginnings. Untold billions of years later, we meet the O'Briens: father (Brad Pitt), mother (Jessica Chastain), and their three young sons, Jack, R.L., and Steve (played strikingly well by first-time actors Hunter McCracken, Laramie Eppler, and Tye Sheridan). Their story is presented out of sequence, as pieces of an existential mosaic. First we see Mrs. O'Brien (she and her spouse have no given names) receiving a distressing telegram. She phones her husband at work with the news it contains, and he, too, is distraught. One of their sons has died. “Lord, why?” the mother wonders, crushed by grief. “Where were you?” A grandmother (Fiona Shaw) tries to console her. “The Lord gives and takes away,” she says. “That’s the way He is.”

The parents themselves might represent the two sides of God’s nature. Mrs. O'Brien is the embodiment of unconditional love and forgiveness. Her husband, however, while loving his family deeply, is also a fierce disciplinarian. (Asked by one of his sons if a friend might come over to visit, the father harshly replies, “Is your family not good enough for you?”)  Even more tellingly, there’s a scene in which young Jack, defiant in the face of one of his father’s Old Testament furies, says, “It’s your house. You can kick me out whenever you want.” And then, “You’d like to kill me.”

The waxing and waning of the O'Brien's love and fortunes is depicted at the center of a much broader canvas. We see the wondrous formation of star fields and planets, and the advent of compassion in a carnivorous dinosaur (a marvelous CGI sequence). There are also visions of inscrutable enchantment: a boy swimming up toward the light out of a flooded house, a passing shot of Mrs. O'Brien twirling ecstatically in the air. The movie represents Malick’s first foray into visual effects, and he seems a natural. (He had well-chosen help, luring out of retirement the great effects specialist Douglas Trumbull, who worked on both 2001 and Blade Runner.)   

The movie is a quiet triumph for Brad Pitt, who gives a commanding performance as a man torn between deeply felt love and an obscure rage that’s a puzzlement as much to himself as to his family. And Chastain, as his stoic wife, an emblem of maternal concern, is surely on her way to a larger career. (She’ll be back in the fall in Ralph Fiennes’ production of Coriolanus.)  

The movie has what seems to me one serious flaw, which is the presence in it of Sean Penn. He plays Jack as a grown man in the present day, a successful architect (I think) now living amid the alienating steel and glass canyons of a big city. Jack is still tormented by the long-ago loss of his brother, and Penn—a fine actor with a boxcar of real-life baggage that will probably always annoy some viewers—has been directed to play the character as a mournful, one-note mope. It’s a very small role, and what dialogue the actor has been given sometimes drifts away in whispers; but Penn’s shrouded performance deadens the last passages of the movie. Jack’s only purpose here is to lead the story to a conclusion—on a beach that might be described as God’s Golden Shore—that, while certainly audacious, flirts with absurdity (and goes on too long).  

Malick, the onetime philosophy student (Harvard, Oxford) and teacher (MIT), might counter that only God is without flaws (although some of the characters here might well counter otherwise). In any event, The Tree of Life is a ravishing achievement, a merging of visual mastery and serious philosophical inquiry that it’s hard to imagine any other director undertaking. The questions Malick pursues have no answers, as we know, but still we seek them. Praying by his bedside in one scene, Jack looks upward and asks, “Are you watching me? I want to see what you see.” Would anyone but Malick even attempt a glimpse?  

Kurt Loder is a writer living in New York. His third book, a collection of film reviews called The Good, the Bad and the Godawful, will be published in November by St. Martin’s Press.

Editor's Note: This article originally misstated the name of the family in The Tree of Life. They are named O'Brien.

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  • Paul||

    Does it have lots of dream sequences of a guy walking through a field, brushing his hand against the grass?

  • Paul||

    There are also visions of inscrutable enchantment: a boy swimming up toward the light out of a flooded house, a passing shot of Mrs. Henderson twirling ecstatically in the air.

    So in a sense, yes.

  • ||

    Are you talking about Gladiator?

    I don't think that was meant to be a dream sequence but a death sequence...

    In fact it was foreshadowed at the beginning of the movie when Maximus gives a speech to his centurions and describes the Elysian Fields.

  • Shmenge||

    I think he was referring to Malick's earlier The Thin Red Line

  • God||

    Sorry for the inconvenience.

  • ||

    this movie seems to be a piece of superstition and fantasy. why should one indulge in this?

  • ||

    Uh...because all movies are pieces of superstition and fantasy? Especially Final Fantasy.

  • Doktor Kapitalism||

    Not to the same degree. Was 2001 a piece of "superstition and fantasy?" The Fountainhead?

  • ||

    Was 2001 a piece of "superstition and fantasy?

    Did you take so much LSD that you missed the last 20 minutes of the movie?

  • seguin||

    Moreover, if you had dropped a hella ton of acid, would the ending seem any different?

  • Doktor Kapitalism||

    Well, it's been awhile since I last saw it, but that was supposed to be explainable through reason, even if it was a little far fetched.

    In other words: it wasn't about God, but the aliens.

  • ||

    True, but this one takes itself seriously.

  • Jim||

    Not Highlander. It was a documentary, and it was shot in real-time.

    I distinctly remember magical cliffs.

  • ||

    Jim, you stay away from that doll with the red shoes, if you know what's good for you.

  • Name Nomad||

    I want candy,
    bubble gum and-

    GODS DAMN IT. Wrong episode.

  • Jim||

    I am glad that there are people on this forum that I can always count on to get the most obscure references to an only moderately popular show.

  • ||

    I have long lamented how few people get it when I say "Sex with animals?!? There's no time, man!!!"

  • Jim||

    "When I get pissed, you get mist!"

  • Err||

    Did you mention the spelling?

  • seguin||

    Yes, we're excellent spellers. Show him, Er.

  • ||

    We find your primitive three dimensions amusing. On the moon we have five--thousand.

  • AlmightyJB||

    Highlander was awesome.

  • ||

    Is there a movie with a Queen sound track that is bad?

    Hell even Flash Gordon was awesome despite it being horrible.

  • ||

    Flash! A-ah!

  • RockLibertyWarrior||

    Brilliant movie, brilliantly dumb and brilliantly awesome!

  • oncogenesis||

    Hey, Reason: Keep posting these reviews. They are a welcome respite from the normal Hit & Run fare.

  • ||

    The amount of intellectual effort wasted on superstition is silly.

  • Doktor Kapitalism||

    CGI and computers being used to promote religion makes me giggle on the inside.

  • rather||

    CGI and computers being used to promote religion makes me giggle on the inside

    Oh, you saw An Inconvenient Truth?

  • Doktor Kapitalism||

    I wasn't referring to that, but it is funny.

  • cynical||

    Yeah, or the printing press and books. What's up with that?

  • Doktor Kapitalism||

    You have a point there, but computers are more technical and require more rationality to produce and operate.

  • This movie||

    sounds gay.

  • Michael Bay||

    And for fucks sake where are the explosions? I give full credit for opening with the Big Bang, but it seems to trail off after that...

  • Doktor Kapitalism||

    "He plays Jack as a grown man in the present day, a successful architect (I think) now living amid the alienating steel and glass canyons of a big city."

    I'm with Howard Roark on this one.

  • Doctor Whom||

    'A grandmother (Fiona Shaw) tries to console her. “The Lord gives and takes away,” she says. “That’s the way He is.”'

    That sounds like something from Landover Baptist Church, only without the close attention to what the Bible actually says.

  • Lord||

    “The Lord gives and takes away,” she says. “That’s the way He is.”

    That's how I roll bitches!

  • Lord Barack Obama||

    The Lord gives (welfare, bailouts, foodstamps) and the Lord takes away (4th Amendment protections, well over half your meager income, your dignity).

  • Fluffy||

    Since Malick's name is on it, I assume I could just talk to a pretentious stoner from a tier-two college who has freshman philosophy under his belt instead, and spare myself the two hours of visual tone poems.

  • ||

    No shit. I remember watching The Thin Red Line and thinking it should've been a Calvin Klein "Obsession" commercial. All those ham-fisted shots of the beauty of nature juxtaposed against the horrors of war were supposed to be deep. For fuck's sake, if I wanted to watch John Travolta meditate on man's inhumanity to man, I'd watch Staying Alive.

  • ||

    I liked the Thin Red Line.

    It came out about the time Saving Private Ryan did and unlike private Ryan it showed war as just poeple slaughtering one another on a land that simply could give a shit about it...not some heroic ballad for "the greatest generation".

  • Patrick Swayze||

    I did it much better on Roadhouse.

  • ||

    Fluffy go watch Badlands...then try to talk shit about Malick.

  • ||

    Badlands is a great movie, but the rest of his stuff is pretentious, contemplative garbage... with great cinematography.

  • moob||

    Oh, I don't know. I really enjoyed "The New World." But I think you have to be in the right mood or have the right mood-altering substances on hand.

  • ||

    The Thin Red Line isn't as good as Badlands and Days of Heaven, but despite the pretentiousness of Days of Heaven, it was a visual work of art. And so was Thin Red Line.

    Malick's work seems to be aimed at getting all he can out of the imagery that's at the heart of all visual art, and he's very good at it, better than pretty near everyone in the movie business. So forget the pretentiousness (although the flat tones of the narrators in Badlands and Days of Heaven have their own interesting nuances) and enjoy the pictures; that's what you're supposed to be doing anyway in movies of the kind Terence Malick makes.

  • Koan||

    The Lord is good. And bad. Actually, he is a beautiful asshole. His monstrous grace flows together with sublime justice to create a confusing but enthralling swirl of creative death. Selah.

  • ||

    It sounds interesting to me, if for no other reason than I am big fan of both 2001 and Blade Runner, so the effects must be good if Trumbull did them (he also did Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

  • ||

    Any discussion about Terence Malick must include at least a reference to his 1973 masterpiece "badlands".

    I call movie review Fail!!!

  • sevo||

    ..."but it’s a hypnotic and—rarest of feats—spiritually enthralling experience..."

    Not likely to those of us thoroughly tired of god-talkers.

  • ||

    I really don't understand the attraction of movies like this. I mean, most folks I know have had all too much experience with the awful accidents life can dump on you, like the death of your son. Who the fuck would voluntarily spend $15 and two hours of his precious free time to be reminded that such hideous things happen, and there's no explanation forthcoming from whoever is minding the store Upstairs, if anyone? Is the attraction like smashing yourself on the head with a stone? It feels so good when you stop? When you leave the theater and realize this is all fake?

    Me, I'd only go to the movies and pay my hard-earned cash to some fool with a camera to be entertained and diverted from the unpleasant aspects of life. Give me something hilariously funny. Or with rocketships and cool exploding widgetry at which to ooh and ah, like fireworks. Or possibly something really inspiring, a cripple reaching the top of Everest, a blind one-legged man winning a gold in the downhill slalom, whatever.

    But this:

    The questions Malick pursues have no answers, as we know, but still we seek them. Praying by his bedside in one scene, Jack looks upward and asks, “Are you watching me? I want to see what you see.” Would anyone but Malick even attempt a glimpse?

    Who but some psychic self-cutter would want a glimpse? I mean, this is like setting up a stand to offer people glasses of dog piss for $1. You know, just for the experience, man. Just for the philosophical insight. Yerch.

    Well, I guess girls like that kind of stuff, just the way they like slasher movies, God love 'em. Or movies where the main character spends the first 15 minutes living the beautiful life and the next 75 minutes dying of cancer. Must be something in the hormones.

  • crazyfish||

    Something in hormones to be a thinking adult? Homer isn't man enough I guess.

    Thank God civilization have a more expansive view of what men like to do or we would not have the Greek tragedies. Wait, the Greeks liked to diddle other men. Must be something in the hormones.

  • ||

    Oh right. Friday the 13th : Part XLVIII is just Antigone, only with a more modern dialect, and set in Camp Fuckly By The Lonely Lake instead of Thebes.

    Apparently a good reading of the classics doesn't teach a man much common sense, at least.

  • ||

    She kept trying to leave the camp to bury her father, Jason's latest victim, but they made her stay in one of the cabins. Good plot line.

  • luckypan||

    Yeah, or the printing press and books. What's up with that?

  • ||

    Mr. Loder calls the family the "Hendersons". Every other review I've read calls them the "O'Brian" family.
    Check your notes Mr. Loder.

    I'm a big Malick fan BTW. "Days of Heaven" is one of the greatest movies of all time.

  • ||

    Finally! Yes, it's the O'Brien family.

  • ||

    Yes, thanks for the red flag, A. Must have been having a "Harry and the Hendersons" moment. Should note that the family's name isn't mentioned in the movie, but since it is in the film's production notes, that won't work as an excuse. Color me dim....

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  • No||

    I know this is kind of a pointless thing to say, but man was I happy to hear some Smetana in the trailer there. I love his music.

  • GrilledCS||

    While I always appreciate the clever, entertaining, and snarky remarks from Reason's commenting crowd, I have to say that I liked Loder's brief and thoughtful review.

    "Badlands" and "Days of Heaven" are really good movies. Personally, I'm glad that a guy like Terrence Malick still gets a good budget to make movies. Loder's review leads me to look forward to seeing this one.

  • ||

    This is the comeback movie with Mel Gibson where he talks to an imaginary sock puppet, right?

  • ||

    Very intriguing and haunting film.

  • ||

    I think it's okay to try to be deep... but keep it practical and weave it into the movie more.

    We live in the midst of a fairly ugly time.

    All I can think sometimes is, please don't let my kids wind up like me. I probably watched a little too much MTV when I was in high school, and probably read a few too many books when I was in college.

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