Many film critics hailed Terrence Malick’s ambitious fifth feature, The Tree of Life, as a masterpiece at Cannes, where it won the Palme D’Or. But the film was highly divisive since its first screening, leading to a major backlash. When audiences got a hold of it, there was very little fence sitting with people either loving it or hating it. It is a film that has been endlessly argued over, in terms of both its quality and its meaning. It is also a film that is particularly hard to be objective about. Your tolerance or intolerance of it will ultimately act as a reflection on how and why you love cinema.
There is very little that can be said definitively about The Tree of Life, and any pieces written on the film may be more telling of the interests of the writer as opposed to the qualities of the film. Terrence Malick presents a clear dichotomy between “the way of nature and the way of grace” in the first line of the film, but from there on the film is left remarkably open to interpretation. Forgetting any pretence at objectivity then, for me, The Tree of Life is really about two different things, one massive and wide-ranging and the other, in comparison, highly specific. It is about life, the universe and everything, but also it is about Jack’s (Hunter McCracken) maturation from childhood to adulthood via puberty. The former encompasses a huge amount, from the place of human beings in the world to an examination of the need for compassion in spite of a fiercely natural world. We move from parents grieving over the death of a son (a hint of the specific to come) to the creation of the world, the beginning of life on earth and finally the joy of reproduction. The family is seen in a highly positive light, a cocoon against the ruthless competition that remains prevalent in many guises throughout the earth’s lifespan – the grace of the family versus the brutal realities of nature. It suggests the rather insignificant place that humans hold in the grand scheme of things, but gives hope. The human way of life may be meaningless, but the little things are what matters. It is not an original message, in fact it may seem rather conservative but this ceases to matter since the film’s aesthetics are entirely unique (to Malick’s cinema at least) and absolutely breathtaking. These preoccupations allow for a film that is majestic, beautiful and really rather moving. In a sense, it is Malick’s masterpiece.
With the birth of Jack, the film becomes more specific, less meta-physical, though the bridge between the birth of the universe and the birth of Jack is surprisingly seamless. The film now meditates on the act of growing up, from difficulties with parents to a burgeoning sexuality to the awareness and acceptance of difference. Here also, in the figures of Jack’s parents (Jessica Chastain and Brad Pitt), we see how the world works and the grace-nature dichotomy comes to fruition. The family becomes less a cocoon than a synecdoche of the world – full of dissatisfaction and rivalry, but also friendship and love. With this, the film successfully comes full circle, its two strains – the universal and the familial – coming together under the same themes, presented big and small.
However, having said all of this, the film’s greatest achievement is its lyricism. The Tree of Life is a visual and poetic film, which succeeds primarily thanks to the sheer beauty of its images, their marriage with music and the meaning through montage. The brilliance of The Tree of Life is not accurately expressed through its plot, or through an analysis of its themes – the above cannot take in the sombre modern-day scenes with the older Jack (Sean Penn), as interesting as it is, or the admittedly awkward impressionistic ending. What makes the film so powerful is that, by watching it, you find out something about yourself based on your reaction to what happens onscreen, whether you laugh out loud or get a lump in the throat. This may sound crude (and it is), but The Tree of Life is a film that can stun and move you while driving your best friend out of their mind with boredom. The Tree of Life is not as much a challenge to some people as it is for others, and working out why it worked or didn’t work for you might just tell you something about how you watch films and, maybe, how you see life.
The Tree of Life is a meditation, rather than a story. As a result, it is a unique and fascinating film that rewards multiple viewing. It is a film that is unashamedly, gloriously arty, if not particularly profound then remarkably beautiful and a fascinating example of the expressive potential of the language of cinema. Malick's images are beautiful, especially when considered alongside the editing and the brilliant music chosen to accompany them. There is another thing that is fresh and brilliant about The Tree of Life that has not really been touched on. It is a film about life and love and grace and nature made with ambition and an eye for beauty, but it is also extremely brave. Not politically brave, but artistically brave because it lays itself bare, dares you to laugh and succeeds in making you see and think about the world in ways that you never have before, all by virtue of one of the film’s most powerful attributes: its fearless honesty.
See the original, inaccurate review from the film's release in 2011 as an indication how one's opinion can change here.