Best Movies of All Time + Tree of Life



"Tell us a story from before we can remember"
-- R.L.
The Tree of Life is a 2011 drama directed by Terrence Malick that attempts to offer the meaning of life. On the anniversary of his brother's death, an adult Jack O'Brien (Sean Penn) reminisces on his coming-of-age as a young teenager in a Waco, Texas suburb. He remembers what his life was like living with his overbearing and sometimes violent father (Brad Pitt) and his reserved and graceful mother (Jessica Chastain). The young Jack (Hunter McCracken) sees his two very different parents and starts to wonder the kind of person he will ultimately become. The story offers a number of Jack's visions and memories as he recalls the time he lost his youthful innocence and started to become a young man. Interspersed with the story surrounding the O'Brien household are a number of images chronicling the creation of the universe and, more specifically, life on earth.

I first watched The Tree of Life about three weeks ago, and I was so taken aback by the film that I couldn't bring myself to write a review at that time. There were so many thoughts rushing through my mind that I simply could not organize them into a coherent post, so I told myself that I would temporarily forego the review and re-watch the film at a later date. That date was today, my friends, and I think I've pondered long enough about this film. I apologize if this post still proves to be a bit of a rambler, so please bear with me.

I have to start by saying that The Tree of Life is by no means for everyone. Much in the way that the 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey is only for a select type of audience, The Tree of Life offers the same type of experience. It's going to cause you to think rather than enjoy, and that's going to turn a lot of viewers away from the film from the start. Instead of bringing an enjoyable piece of entertainment, Malick has offered a more subdued tale that's going to give pause to the audience and force them to think about the meaning of life within the constructs of the images the film is portraying. So, if you're simply looking for a movie to sit back and enjoy, you'll probably want to discontinue reading this review and find something drastically different, like The Adventures of Tintin. And now, for my thoughts about The Tree of Life.

I'd actually like to start with the film's acting because it should prove to be a little more straightforward than the film's screenplay. After watching this film twice, I have to say that I'm shocked that the acting ensemble has not received as much acclaim as it probably deserves. A few critical groups have applauded Chastain, and some have even mentioned Pitt's performance, but for the most part, the film is receiving its accolades as a result of its screenplay and cinematography. I am here to tell you that the acting is just as good, if not better, than the other facets of the film. Chastain, who had a very busy year in 2011, is simply stunning in this one, as are some of the child actors. However, the real cake belongs to Pitt, who turns in one of the finer performances of his career. I think the reason a lot of the acting has been pushed by the wayside is that it is so subtle and subdued that it's not really registering with viewers. And because the film is offering so much more on other levels, it's almost as though the acting in the film is being overshadowed by the film itself. Still, it must be mentioned that our acting ensemble is absolutely terrific.

And now, for the screenplay. I'm going to try to keep this as concise as possible, mostly because I don't want to give away either the events of the film or my own personal thoughts on what it might mean. Essentially, Malick is offering a tale of the meaning of life as told through the eyes of a man remembering his past. There are many potential entry points into the talk of the meaning of life, but The Tree of Life runs with the idea of "nature versus grace." To explain this a little more, I'd like to offer you some of the opening voice-over from the film, as told to us by Chastain's character:

The nuns taught us that there are two ways through life: the way of nature, and the way of grace. We have to choose which one we'll follow. Grace doesn't try to please itself - it accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked; it accepts insults and injuries. Nature only wants to please itself, and others to please it too. It likes to lord it over them, to have its own way. It finds reasons to be unhappy when all the world is shining around it, when love is smiling through all things. They taught us that no one who ever loves the way of grace ever comes to a bad end.
From the very start, we're being told the basis of Malick's idea of the meaning of life, and the rest of the film serves as a way for him to explain and expand on his idea further. By creating a family atmosphere as the film's centerpiece, he has given the audience a number of characters with which to relate and enjoy. Ultimately, this makes the process of understanding Malick's vision all the easier, but then he decides to throw in some existential pieces of beautifully-crafted cinematography that shows us the origins of the universe. I think this is where a lot of the audience will be lost, but if you're able to power through these sequences, I believe that you'll be better off in the long run in relation to understanding this movie.

As I said towards the beginning of this post, The Tree of Life is not a film that everyone should watch. Like 2001: A Space Odyssey, it's going to take a few viewings to start to understand Malick's direction, and from there, you'll have plenty of time to speculate your own theories and ideas. There's no right answer as to what Malick is trying to convey as I think a lot of it is open to your own interpretation. I personally found a very religious tone throughout the movie, but the person next to me could have a completely different experience. The Tree of Life moves from being a motion picture to a true work of art. I'd even go so far as to say that it is cinematic poetry. As time passes, I'm sure I'll watch this one again and again, if only to further my appreciation for it. If you think you'd like to do the same, then give this one a watch.

Movie Review Summary
Grade: A
1.5 Thumbs Up

2011, Brad Pitt, drama, Hunter McCracken, Jessica Chastain, movie review, Oscar nom, Sean Penn, Terrence Malick, and more:

Relevant to: THE TREE OF LIFE + Tree of Life