The Tree of Life (Malick, 2011)


The best films in the world divide people, they can change your life. The Tree of Life (Malick, 2011) is such a film. Thousands of reviews and articles from around the world have comes to grips with it. The tracking camera moves, the view of the world for the first time. An ending that is incredibly moving, I was numb with awe at one particular moment when the adult Jack (Sean Penn) meets his father (Brad Pitt) at the beach, the gesture of comfort. In the end we are Jack, the meeting at the beach is the end of time or is it the eternity of life after death? This numbing awe I speak of happened to me watching the opening of The Thin Red Line (Malick, 1998), the view of the world with Malick’s loving eyes. Malick loves life and people like Eric Rohmer, though Rohmer from what I remember rarely has his characters out of the frame.


Many people really hate this film in one way or another, from its tracking shots, to whispered sometimes philosophical voiceovers and low and high angle shots of faces and nature. The evolution sequence that has many so bothered is only 16 minutes long. After this sequence they were willing to give up. Douglas Trumbull’s work on the sequence is of awe inspiring wonder. If you have the idea that tight narrative always runs a film like David Mamet says, this could very likely not be the film for you. The film is from the memory of the adult Jack, memories from Waco, Texas 1955, when Jack was 12 years old like Terrence Malick, born in 1943. Jack has two younger brothers R.L. (Laramie Eppler) and Steve (Tye Sheridan), their parents are the angelic Mrs. O’Brien (Jessica Chastain) and the authoritarian Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt).

Tree of Life 10

I’ve seen The Tree of Life five times since its release five years ago. It demands repeated viewings, Adrian Martin (2011) has said that on his first viewing, he thought that the boy who drowns at the pool was an O’Brien. Also according to Kent Jones (2011) the dress that Jack steals from a bedroom is not from his mother’s room but a neighbour’s. Which makes Mrs. O’Brien look at Jack and his reaction after he returns home even more ambiguous, how could she know exactly what he’d done? Mark Cousins sums up the film in the fewest of words. ” I was in an edit suite all year but popped out to catch this, the greatest grief movie I have ever seen. It’s cut so fast that everything in it except the prehistoric scenes) is half glimpsed, as if sadness is something you see out of the corner of your eye.”

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Is this the greatest film ever made? A perfect film. It’s tracking shots swoon around the O’Brien household, through the trees nearby and up to the sky. The ending is so profound because Jack is us, his whole life right in front of him. After watching the film yesterday and re-watching the ending twice today, I cried, I felt my life in front of me. The sequence has Malick’s imagery combines with Hector Berlioz’ Agnus Dei [Requiem, Op. 5 (Grande Messe des Morts) with its stunning choral accompaniment make the bridging relationship of audio and visual quite literally out of this world. It reminds me of a another film’s ending that of My Dinner with Andre (Malle, 1981) Wally Shawn’s monologue about the streets and buildings of New York connected in his mind; buying an ice cream after school and buying a suit with his father.


Of course The Tree of Life also heavily reminds the viewer of 2001: A Space Odyssey (Kubrick, 1968). Michel Chion (2014) states “Two grandiose companies in which the universe as revealed shows modern science is at stake, but made of two opposing views. A break with the family and all earthly bonds, in the first film, meets, in the second, the strong presence of the family of affect. The gesture retained the dinosaur, this is an extraordinary idea of Malick’s, comparable to the bone thrown by the monkey in 2001.” I have debated with myself if The Tree of Life is as great as I think it is, my head buzzing with its images over the past few days has confirmed it as a masterpiece beyond the beyond.

O'Brien House

I have re-watched Badlands (Malick, 1973), Days of Heaven (Malick, 1978) and The Thin Red Line (Malick, 1998), they filled are with breathtaking imagery. To the Wonder (Malick, 2012) and The New World (Malick, 2005), have their moments, I really struggled with the latter. Knight of Cups (Malick, 2015) Malick’s latest offering, lost me, though it is like an extending of adult Jack’s life at home and in the working world. A friend of mine told me if he ever taught a film class he would show The Tree of Life to youngsters and tell them to spend weeks breaking it down, scene by scene, shot by shot. The Tree of Life will be remembered in a 100 years. My friend continued, in that time, people will look at the film and say ‘wow, that man was so in tune with life and the planets’. He told me all of this the day after seeing it for the first time. The Tree of Life can do that to you. Some people see the film as a technical exercise, I see it as a eulogy.


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