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The Tree of Life

A movie directed by Terrence Malick

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The Search for a Constant in the Ever-Changing Scenes of Time

  • Jun 4, 2011
Star Rating:

Like a finely orchestrated piece of music, Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life is a film that challenges the power of description. It is, paradoxically, his most simple and most challenging work; rather than appeal to the logical desires of the mind – discernable plot, archetypal characters, a clear beginning, middle and end – he relies heavily on visual symbolism, creative editing, and meditative dialogue, most of which is internal. The result is not a film so much as a deep rumination, one that taps directly into the emotions and somehow finds the right one to play off of, no matter what your lot in life. It’s clearly the work of a man who knows he doesn’t have the answers but maintains that childlike sense of curiosity. Watching this was a profoundly moving experience, one that I highly recommend to everyone.
Its message, I believe and would argue, is that there is ingrained in the universe a cyclical pattern of life, death, and renewal, and that within this pattern is a continuous process of evolution. Creation, destruction, extinction, rebirth – that this is happening at all is nothing short of miraculous, and yet there’s no way to explain any of it. No way, at least, that we have been able to discover. We can only go by what we can perceive. Just as in there will be dwarf stars and supernovas and black holes and the formation of planets out in the universe, so too will there be love and hate and laughter and tears here on our own little world. This is what amazes me about this film: We’re being shown that what happens here is also happening in the vastness of space. It’s only a matter of scale.

Floating within the infinite expanse of time and space is Waco, Texas circa 1950. Here, we find the O’Brien family – a nuclear unit consisting of a father, mother, and three boys. Malick does a brilliant job capturing snapshots of everyday life, from the mundane to the monumental. We notice unlocked houses, lawns with sprinklers, trees with tire swings, and backyards that lead to rivers. We see the boys run up and down the neighborhood streets, climb trees, light firecrackers, roughhouse with each other, and prance around in clouds of DDT. We see the father (Brad Pitt), a provider and a disciplinarian, a man who laments his unfulfilled musical dreams. We see the mother (Jessica Chastain), who is less authoritative and more understanding of her children. We see the oldest boy, Jack (Hunter McCracken), rebel against the tyranny of his father. We see playtime, punishment, and moments in which innocent goading escalates into physical pain.
Intertwined with this are scenes of Jack as an adult (Sean Penn), now lost in a labyrinthine jungle of urban growth. His is a world of skyscrapers, all glass, steel, and concrete. Malick films Penn almost entirely at low angles so that the buildings do more than merely tower over him; they actually seem to consume him. One of Jack’s brothers died at the age of nineteen – as alluded to in an early scene in which Mrs. O’Brien receives a telegram – and just as he did when he was a child, he calls out to the universe in an effort to understand why things are the way they are. Some would call this praying to God, and indeed, he was brought up in a religious household; we watch him progress from asking for good behavior to wishing his father dead to questioning what happens next, which I think is about right given the life he has led.

Malick devotes the middle section of the film to a condensed but nonetheless breathtaking history of creation and evolution, from the Big Bang all the way through to the extinction of the dinosaurs. Episodes with the O’Brien’s do not play out on a cosmic scale, and yet they represent the same thing: The ever-changing scenes of time. In their grip, a son must come to terms with a father in combat with the world and a mother whose adherence to love and compassion may be too idealistic. He must also face the reality of suffering and death, as we all must face at one point or another. There is a time for everything – pain and pleasure, hope and despair, sickness and health, hatred and forgiveness.
How does one find certainty in an uncertain world? Where is that eternal scheme of which we’re all a part of? Does such a thing even exist? Malick seems to be suggesting that yes, it does exist, and that in the end, all that matters is unconditional love. The Tree of Life is a deep, resonant, solemn examination of the ordinary and the extraordinary, one that instills the notion that miracles happen all around us. You could interpret that however you wish. I apply it to the grandeur of an oak tree, or the simplicity of a summer breeze, or the inquisitiveness of an infant child, or even to the precious yet inexplicable gift of life. There is within all of us the capacity for joy, understanding, and love; it is only when we acknowledge this that we’re truly at one with the universe.


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June 05, 2011
I am with Charley...quite an enthralling review! I think you may have grasped the film better than I. I liked it and it was rather hard for me to put into words how I felt about it. I think Malick's film is free to be interpreted by the viewer as the abstracts and its dynamics are far-reaching. Thanks for the treat of having to read your review. :)
June 07, 2011
I had a difficult time of it, too. That's why it took me a week to write the review; I posted it on June 3, but I saw it on May 27, the day it opened. I find it very frustrating when I can't put into words how I feel about a movie. A critic, I believe, should never have writer's block.
June 04, 2011
While I doubt that I would agree with Malick's message or even enjoy sitting through the movie, I certainly enjoyed reading your review. A well-crafted and thoughtful piece of work.
June 04, 2011
I have to admit, you've made my day with your comment. I was convinced this was one of the worst reviews I had ever written. As beautiful and moving as I found this movie, it does not lend itself easily to description. I felt like I was just rambling. Thank you for your encouragement.
More The Tree of Life reviews
review by . June 05, 2011
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Every New Beginning is Some Other Beginning's End....
When I got out of the theaters for Terrence Malick‘s “The Tree of Life“, every viewer was asked to put their opinion on a piece of paper as to determine audience reaction. It is a film that is very different. Terrence Malick’s writing and direction turns so many components, angles and layers that to appreciate it one either has to be used to a style of non-linear, unconventional storytelling and/or have a profound appreciation for vague, poetic voice-over to tell its …
review by . July 11, 2011
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Evolution vs Eternity: An Odyssey & A Galaxy
The Tree of Life is a good movie. It is a deep one too. It asks many questions and provide no distinctive answers that matter to the world at large except those of our very own. It is also a movie that is a tad too long for many audiences, imho.      The Tree of Life is a movie for many adults but definitely not for children, despite the fact that half its cast is made up of children. When children are not matured enough, asking those very questions asked by the movie can present …
review by . December 10, 2011
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**** out of ****    It's but once every few years - and sometimes every few decades - that the great Terrence Malick unleashes another one of his bold, bright, and beautiful cinematic visions onto the world. He unveils each project with great confidence; an attitude that could come off as self-absorbed, pretentious, and indulgent; while others find plenty to admire about the man. He's a quiet fellow, and enjoys keeping to himself; most likely an avid observer of nature, human …
review by . May 26, 2011
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'The Tree Of Life' 'Two Jews On Film' Only One Says Bravo To Malick's Brilliant Masterpiece (Video)
The Big Bang...Creation...Evolution...God...Religion...Life...Death...Family...These are the themes that Terrence Malick addresses in his brilliant new film, 'The Tree Of Life'.       In my humble opinion, this is one of the most original films in cinematic history.  It is also a film that will divide people...Some will absolutely hate it, some will be angered by it and some like myself, will absolutely love it.           …
review by . February 14, 2012
posted in Movie Hype
   You may ask yourself why a so late review on The Tree of Life. Aside from some personal matters I have to say that when I had the chance to write it I felt like there's so many things to write about this movie and that a shorter review will not be a fair exposition. Now, someone reminded me that I still have not written any review for this film and I was shocked to realize it so I instantly grabbed my pen and started to scratch my paper.      How do you start …
review by . June 19, 2011
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Malick's Meaning of Life
THE TREE OF LIFE   Written and Directed by Terrence Malick   Starring Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain and Sean Penn       Mrs. O’Brien: You’ll be grown before that tree is tall.       THE TREE OF LIFE is a true film experience. Writer/Director, Terrence Malick’s latest opus is an assault of the best kind on your eyes, your ears and your mind. It is mesmerizing from the moment it begins with a pattern of dancing waves …
review by . October 15, 2011
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The Tree of Life: On Second Thought
THE TREE OF LIFE Written and Directed by Terrence Malick Starring Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain and Sean Penn      Mrs. O'Brien: You'll be grown before that tree is grown.   Terrence Malick’s THE TREE OF LIFE is the most polarizing film I’ve seen in ages. It was widely reported that plenty of patrons walked out and angrily demanded their money back while just as many fans vehemently defended it, proclaiming the film a modern masterpiece. In fact, this …
Quick Tip by . January 03, 2012
posted in Movie Hype
I decided after 4 attempts not to try to review the movie, it's too overwhelming in both good and bad ways to stay a manageable review. I do have to say it is similar in structure to 2001 and the other Malick movies: The New Worls and The Thin Red Line. And as an amateur photographer I can say that the movie has photographers in mind more than casual movie-goers expecting an exciting plot.
Quick Tip by . July 11, 2011
posted in Movie Hype
It is what each of us takes away that makes it a powerful film. The highest evolution about humans and its relevance to the planet are being portrayed and yet it also hints of the end. Did I enjoy it?      Yes. But, I wish it's slightly shorter ;-) Sensory overload & emotionally explosive!        
About the reviewer
Chris Pandolfi ()
Ranked #2
Growing up a shy kid in a quiet suburb of Los Angeles, Chris Pandolfi knows all about the imagination. Pretend games were always the most fun for him, especially on the school playground; he and his … more
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About this movie


The Tree of Life is a 2011 American drama film written and directed by Terrence Malick, and starring Brad Pitt, Sean Penn and Jessica Chastain. The film premiered in competition at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival and won the Palme d'Or.
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Director: Terrence Malick
Genre: Drama, Sci-Fi
Release Date: 27 May 2011 (USA)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Screen Writer: Terrence Malick
Runtime: 138 minutes
Studio: Chockstone Pictures, Cottonwood Pictures, Plan B Entertainment
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