The Tree of Liferecommended viewing

From the birth of time all the way to Brad Pitt
★★★★★
Released: 
2011
Director: 
Terrence Malick
Starring: 
Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain, Sean Penn, Hunter McCracken
The Setup: 
A certain vision of the universe and man's place in it.
Discussion: 

I was super-psyched to learn there's a new Terrence Malick movie coming out, so relatively soon after the wonderful The New World, and especially once I learned it was going to include everything from the birth of the cosmos, through the dinosaurs, and all the way up to Brad Pitt! Then it was received with some cheers and some boos at Cannes, but ultimately won the top prize! So obviously I was pretty much beside myself to see it, although it's hard to go in expecting an awesome good time from something like this, and I'll admit that I was very nearly sidetracked by the lures of Hangover 2.

We open with this light, a bit like a candle flame, and what I took to be the primordial flame of existence. We then start hearing voiceover about the way of nature and the way of grace, and how you choose which you will follow. We now start to see a lot of Brad Pitt (he's never named, we'll call him dad), mostly shot from behind in the first few minutes, exaggerating his presence as a big, somewhat inscrutable figure. Also present is Jessica Chastain as mom, all radiance and smiles, and their three boys in idyllic, sunlit Texas. It goes like this for a while--not so much scenes but fragments--as we see the parents receive news of a child's death. Then we start cutting to Sean Penn as their son as an adult, who has moved to Dallas and works in all these modern skyscrapers, shot to be as modern and inhuman as possible. Then--the creation of the universe!

You know, it's not too many movies that think to include the creation of the universe, although it is relevant to nearly every tale. Anyway, there's a bunch of lights, eventually some planets, stuff like that. Some of it looks like the sky from Flash Gordon, but most of it looks really good. Then we see one of the first images that really stayed with me, which is a dinosaur on a beach, head craned around, looking at its own wound, which has ripped open its back. It's strangely moving, and the dinosaur seems to be trying to understand what has happened to him. Then there's another dinosaur, lying on the side of a creek. Another dinosaur comes up and quickly steps on its head. Then it pulls its foot back, looks at the exhausted creature who is not putting up any kind of fight, and moves on. It's key to understand that the predatory dinosaur doesn't have a Disney-style moment where its eyes get really big and we can tell what its thinking... It just does what it does, then moves off. After more cosmic fun, we rejoin mom and dad.

This is the central section of the movie, which is taken up with the family and the youth of their sons. We see mostly fragments, no full scenes, and no plot... Just little incidents and bits that gradually add up to form a picture. The one boy is born, the parents are in wonder at him, there are happy days playing with him outside, looking at bugs, swinging him around, then a few minutes later the boy is looking at a baby in a crib and we know another child has been born. Soon the first boy runs away crying from the mother holding the infant, and she says "I know," and we understand that he's jealous of the attention the child is getting. Similarly, there's no big scene in which we learn that dad has a troubled relationship to his kids, we just see him ordering them to call him "Sir," being harsh and brusque with them, then suddenly grabbing them when he wants to show affection. We follow the boys as they grow in this way, with no full scenes and no plot, as we see the eldest, Jack, go through an angry phase, grow more distant and judgmental of his father, and grow closer with his younger brother.

It does start to get a tiny bit long, what with no plot to follow, and in here I started to wish for a little more nature footage. But what these scenes accomplish, which is a rather incredible feat, is to bypass your intellect and the story-following attention you normally use to watch a movie, and become nakedly emotional. Both my friend and I found ourselves crying at various points in the movie, not because of any particular thing that happens (because nothing really happens), but just the thoughts and memories it evokes of, say, your own distant father, or your own sweet, comforting mother, or the strange things and confusion encountered during childhood... Being not about any particular thing, it is instead about everything, and is blank enough to dredge up your own emotions, not supply them for you, as most movies usually do.

Which is what makes this movie fundamentally different from others, even Malick's own. It is a piece not meant to guide you through the messages it is imparting, but rather seems designed to provide a bunch of material that you can project your own memories and unresolved emotions on, making it a very personal and moving experience.

So the story, such as it is, gains a little closure by the family having to leave the home they've lived in for the whole movie (and is that classic, idyllic, sun-drenched childhood home), and then we have a relatively short but very moving coda in which the family (and other wandering souls) reconnect on a beach. I know: it sounds a little trite, but just trust me when I say it works and is very moving. But even so, it's not enough to overwhelm the movie. Then we see some fragments--the flame, the son who died, a field of sunflowers (son flower), a bridge--and that's it. This is one of those movies where the entire audience stays through most of the credits not because they want to see the names, but because they're too stunned to move.

This is not one of those movies where the lights come up and you turn to your friend and say "that was GREAT!" And in fact it might not be until the next day that you start to like it. You might also be left feeling like you didn't "get" it, but what I am saying is there isn't much to get, it's about what you bring to it and what you get out of it. All that said, like it or not, I think it is pretty much a requirement to see it. There isn't another movie like it, and it's just something to see. I would also endeavor to see it in the theater, because there's no way even the least ADD of us could pay as much attention as this deserves at home. You just need to be closed off with no distractions and sit there and have an experience.

Which is more, I can speculate with confidence, than Hangover 2 is offering.

Should you watch it: 

Yes, definitely, and see it in the theater while you can.