The Tree of Life has been promoted to the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies. This initial review is left here for archival purposes. Please visit the film’s official Certified Weird entry for further discussion of the film.
DIRECTED BY: Terrence Malick
FEATURING: Brad Pitt, Hunter McCracken, Jessica Chastain, Sean Penn
PLOT: A man recalls his childhood in suburban Waco, Texas, and his difficult relationship with
his father; in the process he also seems to unlock some primal memories of the creation of the universe and the evolution of life.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Any movie that tells the story of a suburban Texas boy’s troubled relationship with his father—but uses a dramatic encounter between dinosaurs to illustrate its main point—is at least making a nod towards the bizarre. But, although there are many strange images and ideas in the stream-of-cosmic-consciousness Tree of Life, surrealism is only used as an occasional accent here; overall, the mood is more accurately described as “poetic” rather than “weird.”
COMMENTS: A boy’s tempestuous relationship with Brad the Father is used as a metaphor for nothing less than the turmoil between man and his Maker in Terrence Malick’s moon shot of a movie. Told mostly as a series of hazy, almost dreamlike domestic memories, the story frequently drifts from reality to fantasy: at times, the boy imagines his mother as Snow White encased in a glass coffin in the forest, or sees a mysterious tall man looming over him in an arched attic. In one memorable shot, a child in a flooded, womb-like bedroom swims out the window as a teddy bear floats in the amniotic brine. But what people remember and talk about most are the amazing sequences of the laying of the foundation of the earth—the formation of nebulae, the birth of stars, molten lava boiling, merging into visions of the dance of cellular mitosis as the Tree of Life begins to form. This leads to those famous graceful dinos who enact a unlikely primal drama, before a meteor wipes them out and we jump forward to our protagonist’s birth. The cosmic creation sequences seem to come ex nihilo, and, despite the frequent comparisons to the far-out visuals of 2001: A Space Odyssey, they’re more like watching the “Best of Nova” on fast forward. As is the rest of the narrative, the scenes of life’s gestation and birth are accompanied by the heavenly choral and symphonic sacred music of Bach, Taverner, Smetana, Mahler, and a host of others; history’s most glorious music written by man to express his wonder at creation. It is impossible not to be awed by the splendor of the universe Malick lays out before us, and it’s impossible not to be intrigued by his brashness in recreating the cosmos for our benefit. The middle section of the film, which details young Jack’s inability to comprehend gruff and demanding dad Brad’s harsh plan to toughen him up to face life’s challenges, will prove tough going for many due to the slow pace and lack of narrative flow, but it fits the movie’s meditative themes perfectly and gives the mind a chance to turn over the metaphor Malick molds. The film’s finale, which may be its weakest (or at least its most divisive) feature, moves from the cosmic to the supercosmic as Sean Penn, the resentful little boy now turned into a doubtful and accusatory adult, walks through a door frame hanging in desert space onto a beach of souls. You may not agree with Tree of Life‘s ultimate religious message, but you have to admire the sincerity and passionate intensity with which Malick delivers it. He leaves nothing on the table. Considering the pandering, preachy crud that passes as “inspirational” cinema these days, it’s a miracle to see a thoughtful spiritual movie that gives doubt its due and isn’t self-servingly made to elicit “hallelujahs!” from the pious choir (though they will likely praise it, too). Based on the screening I attended, I can say that the reports of audible exhaling when the credits roll and the buzz of excited conversation outside theaters afterwards are not exaggerated. Like it or not, or agree with the message or not, Tree of Life is a challenging and audacious work of cinema, and you’ll be better for having encountered it.
Beginning with the Charles Starkweather-inspired Badlands in 1973, the perfectionistic and reclusive Terrence Malick has only completed five feature films. All of them are paced with unfashionable slowness, feature gorgeous natural cinematography, and wrestle with weighty themes (the Harvard-educated director was a Rhodes scholar who briefly taught philosophy at MIT before turning to film). Now 63 years old, Malick has another project currently in the works, but The Tree of Life has the feeling of a cinematic summation and a swan song.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“…a beautiful, messy film: at times lyrical, intimate, and uplifting; at others, vast, inscrutable, and maddening.”–Christopher Orr, The Atlantic (contemporaneous)
NOTE: We loved The Tree of Life but didn’t really think it was strange enough to qualify as a “weird” movie (by our elevated standards). 366 readers disagreed, and in the 2nd Reader’s Choice poll they selected The Tree of Life to be placed on the List of Candidates for the 366 Best Weird Movies of All Time. So it is done.