The Tree of Life (2011)

Rates: * * * * *

Why Did I Watch It? I bought the Criterion blu ray, which has an extended cut of the film.

Cast, crew, etc.


When you think about it, it is extraordinarily unlikely that we are here. We stand at the end of a very long line of sequential events; the big bang, the formation of matter, the cooling of the universe, the creation of stars, galaxies, planets, the emergence of organic chemistry, and biology, multi-cellular organisms, intelligence, sentience. A process that took 14 billion years, that we are only just beginning to understand; from an infinite explosion, to me sitting at my laptop.

This, the story of everything, is what Terrence Malick attempts to give us in ‘The Tree of Life’.

The creation and evolution of the universe is depicted in one staggering twenty minute sequence; all of the events of the entirety of history realised through spectacular visuals (some from NASA and some CGI) and powerful music. It is really like… nothing else, I ever have seen in a movie. I find it incredibly emotive, and I’m sharing the director’s sense of wonder, at the infinite reaches of time and space, the vast scale of everything.

The dawn of emotional intelligence.

After our planet has formed, and life has arisen, there is an amazing scene on some lost river, where one dinosaur comes across another, injured, lying on its side. And the first, more agressive dino goes to crush the other one’s head, and then relents. They look at each other, and then the uninjured one runs off, in a way that mirrors ‘2001’, and suggests we are watching now the evolution of complex thought; the first time one creature looked at a different creature and recognised themsleves. The origin of everything that comes later.

After this epic voyage through cosmic history, and the dawn of emotional intelligence, we washup in small town Texas, in the 1950s. Here a brusque father and loving mother (Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain, rarely better) raise their three young sons in a regular household. We are now seeing everything that has just been written on the scale of planets and stars, replicated at a much more recognisable level.

Children are born, raised, and evolve from simple to more complex beings. There is order and chaos; as Chastain’s character puts its, the way of nature (Pitt) or the way of grace (her). There is violence, but instead of a mass extinction event like a meteorite hitting the earth, it is an argument over table manners, or just a particularly nasty storm. The only difference between the planets revolving around the sun, and two parents raising their kids, is the scale these events happen on. There is a fundamental connector there, at every level, like a watermark.

The final section of the movie is usually interpreted as showing the afterlife; Sean Penn, playing a grown up version of the eldest boy from the Texas scenes, has died, and finds his family again on some nameless beach. A series of beautiful, comforting images. And while the natural wonders of the earlier parts are not necessarily religious, this part seems to be; a mainstream Christian view of heaven.

But this time around, I watched the extended cut of the film recently released via Criterion, this is now framed slightly differently. It is much more ambiguous; Penn may not actually be dead, but instead could simply be processing his brother’s death. The beach may not be the afterlife, but a visual depiction of his memories, his thoughts and feelings. It could be any of these, which is to the movie’s benefit.

For Malick, a devout Christian, undoubtedly it is heaven, and everything he shows us throughout is overseen by a powerful, and unpredictable, God. And while I do not believe in this myself, and am not religious, part of the genius of this movie is that it gets me anyway. The film is designed to instill a sense of awe that can be religious or secular. Our universe is incredible, however you believe it came about.

The film also makes me think about a quote from Carl Sagan, from his book ‘Cosmos’, which I have read many times:

“The surface of the Earth is the shore of the cosmic ocean. On this shore, we’ve learned most of what we know. Recently, we’ve waded a little way out, maybe ankle-deep, and the water seems inviting. Some part of our being knows this is where we came from. We long to return, and we can, because the cosmos is also within us. We’re made of star stuff. We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.”

This is as ambitious as a film can get, and it can be polarising. It is not narrative cinema. You have to let it stream around you, and get lost in its images and symbolism, and emotions, and think about your own life, and what all of it means.

And if you are tuned into this wavelength, it is one of the great cinema experiences.

See my fave 100 movies list, here.