Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The Tree of Life Rooted in Spirituality

The Tree of Life

Terrence Malick’s latest film, The Tree of Life, has been called everything online from a “masterpiece” to “one of the greatest films ever made.” Yet while sitting in the theatre I could not help but wonder what all the universal praise from critics and bloggers alike was about? Was it just me? Did I miss some significant point that others saw?

The Tree of Life centres around the O’Brien family who live a small town in Texas in the 1950s. The film opens with Mr. And Mrs. O’Brien (Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain) grieving over the lost of one of their three sons at the young age of 19. Flash forward several years and the O’Brien’s oldest son Jack (Sean Penn) is dissatisfied with his seemingly charmed life and starts to reflect on his childhood in an attempt to better understand himself and his turbulent relationship with his father.

The Tree of Life is not a bad film per say just a disappointing one. Despite the two hour and twenty minute running time, there is only about 45 minutes worth of actual plot. The most interesting elements come in the dynamics between Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien and Jack. In fact, there really is not a need for the scenes of a much older Jack at work. The film would have the same impact had Sean Penn not been in it. Many have heralded the film as a visually stunning meditative piece that merges the questions of life, death, God, and childhood into one unique experience. While true in regards to the visual experience, it is the meditative aspects that really hurt the film. None of the questions or ideas raised in the film are new or unique. Anyone who is remotely religious, or has a vague interest in philosophy, has wrestled with these issues before.

The Tree of Life plays like “spirituality for beginners.” While the film is concerned with being more of an overall spiritual film than aligning with any particular group, Malick does quote the bible heavily. I had a déjà vu moment when Jack’s voice over utters in a conflicted tone “what I want to do I do no, but I hate what I do” as the bible verse from Romans 7:15 was part of one of the readings at a church I attended recently. What is interesting about the spiritual aspect is that it is not as subtle as one might expect from a film such as this. The Tree of Life really does pound home the ideas of letting go, being good to one another, and enjoying the small moments.

Maximizing the small moments is what The Tree of Life actually does very well. For all the grand thoughts The Tree of Life has, Terrence Malick’s film is at its most beautiful when it is displaying the simple aspects of life. Seeing Jack as a baby sleeping peacefully on his mothers shoulder instantly made me think of my own two month old son. Not only did the film make me think of my life now as a parent, but my experiences as a child as well. Especially in the ‘endless summer’ segment of the film, when the three brothers are outside playing and getting into mischief.

As mentioned earlier, The Tree of Life is, if nothing else, stunning from a visual standpoint. Whether it is a shot of birds swarming in packs, dinosaurs displaying dominance, or spirits embracing the afterlife, the film provides a sensory overload. It is just unfortunate that Malick did not provide more substance with the story to bring greater weight to the visuals. Again, The Tree of Life is not an awful film, but it did not evoke the same euphoric response out of me as it did others. I understand that the film offered many a meditative experience, but as a person who is rather spiritual already, The Tree of Life did not provide anything more than the same old philosophical questions wrapped up in pretty packaging.

The Tree of Life is part of our The Must See List series.


  1. It's a polarizing film indeed. I'm not surprised that a lot of people would feel the same way as you. It's not an entertaining film and it can be very demanding at times.

    While the questions the movie raised are nothing new, they are some of the most universal to the human condition. Naturally, Malick is only another man and he doesn't have any answers to provide.

  2. @Castor - I would not have a problem had Malick gone for a straight visual contemplation film similar to Baraka, which was a great film. Once he starts adding the O’Brien plot, and the voice-overs, he changes the context of the film. He implies that there is a greater meaning that will unfold. The film never delivers on this front in my opinion. Really, if you think about it, Sean Penn serves no other purpose than to get us to that beautiful “letting go scene” at the end.

    It felt like Malick did not have confidence that the O’Brien story, or the visual elements, could stand on their own. I understand that Malick is human like the rest of us, but everyone has his or her own take on our existence, death, a higher power, etc. I just wish he instilled a little something deeper than “be good to one another.”

  3. I'll say this though. While I might disagree with your opinion. At least you were able to articulate your problems with the film. I had a few qualms about the film but it was still something that I was able to be engaged by.

    I hope to see it again in the theaters. It's definitely not like anything out there.

  4. Though I love Malick and this is one of my most anticipated films of the year, I feared that he would not focus enough on the story, and the film was more visually delightful and ambitious. I hope my suspicions are wrong, but your review indicates that it may not be quite as good as some people say. Oh well, I suppose I have to just see for myself!

  5. @thevoid – I am fully aware that I am in the minority when it comes to this film, as every critic and blogger are gushing with love for it. I will concede that it is indeed a unique film like that is nothing like anything else in theatres right now. Some aspects of The Tree of Life did remind me of the film Enter the Void but the two are vastly different films on the whole. Again, I did not completely hate the film as there is some really good moments in it but, overall, I walked away rather disappointed.

    @Matt S – I still think you should see it for yourself. There are things I did like about the film, dare I say moments of brilliance, but on the whole I did not find it to be as good as other found it to be. You may have a completely different reaction to me on this one.

  6. "The Tree of Life plays like “spirituality for beginners.”"


    I flat out hated this film (in spite of liking many individual elements, including and especially the imagery), and I think this hits on why. It asks all these vague questions that sort of relate to religion and philosophy, but a) it makes no attempts to answer them, and b) it's nothing you haven't heard before. People are giving this film so much credit for being deep and intellectual...if anything, it's shallow!

  7. @Tom – I would be fine with the film not offering any answers if the questions were somewhat original. At the very least, he could have put a unique spin on the questions which was different from the usual way the questions are offered.

    I read your review on Row Three yesterday and loved the discussion it has created. I did not chime in my two cents as I am not as well versed in Malick's canon as everyone else on that site. To date I have only seen three of Malick’s films (The Tree of Life, The Thin Red Line, The New World), though Badlands and Days of Heaven are on my must see list.


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