The Tree of Life (2011) – Film Review

Brad Pitt and Sean Penn star in Terrence Malick's absorbing The Tree of Life...

The Tree of Life is the culmination of years of planning by Terrence Malick, the mysterious and reclusive maverick of cinema and one of the greatest film-makers of our time. Probably the closest we’ve got to Stanley Kubrick, his films are emotionally wrought, authentic, and cinematically inventive. His latest movie is a breathtaking race through a man’s life, thoughts, emotions and wonderings, only comparable in any meaningful way to James Joyce’s novel Ulysses.

While it doesn’t seek to represent a man’s inner workings in the same was as Ulysses does, The Tree of Life uses powerful subjective images and music to bring an epic scale to the story of a harsh, perhaps mildly abusive relationship between father and son. It gives the viewer an insight into the mind of a man in the way that only cinema could, much like Ulysses does it in a way that only a novel could.

Sean Penn is Jack, an architect who experiences something of a total existential meltdown in the middle of a particularly exciting meeting. He stumbles into a glassily modern malaise, and spends much of his time on-screen wandering around the various towers of Babel he finds surrounding him. Brad Pitt plays Mr O’Brien – a rare unpleasant role for the usually likeable Pitt – and Jessica Chastain plays Mrs O’Brien, the ethereal and angelic heart of the film, whom Jack clearly adores. Through his memories and his realisations we see how Jack’s simultaneously harsh treatment at the hands of his father and the permissive nature of his mother confused and angered him as a youngster, culminating in a scene in which the confused Jack – unsure of his own emotions and burgeoning sexual feelings – steals into a neighbours house to pore through her things, feeling shame for being so weak afterwards.

Interspersed throughout the film are little snippets of scenes from much earlier on in the history of the universe – including the creation of the planets and the time of the dinosaurs. With these images, Malick is showing us that the events of Jack’s life are universal, and that our modern society is built on this past. It is, in effect, the events of Jack’s, and his generation’s, early life that leads us to our present world.

The film is stunning and is really beautiful in places. It’s not a film of long build-ups and stunning climaxes but a film of tiny electric moments, those moments that aren’t world-changing but make someone, in a million small ways, the person that they become.

The film is non-linear and completely abstract in places. It’s a tapestry of images that have been expertly woven together not in chronological order but in a very definite emotional order, and is undoubtedly one of the films of the year. A stunning and artful work of genius cinema, and a vital statement on life and living from one of the greatest directors of our time.


Best scene: There’s a split second shot of Jessica Chastain floating in the air that is surprising, but just wonderful.
Best line: ‘Be quiet’.

The film has had a few release dates, and was at various points set to star Heath Ledger, Colin Farrell, and Mel Gibson.

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