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The Tree of Life

May 272011
 By , May 27, 2011

“The Tree of Life” | a film review by Gary Chew

Following is a guide for you to take along when seeing Terrence Malick’s star laden new film, “The Tree of Life.”

  1. Malick movies come into your consciousness much like broadcast TV does, but he has his OWN CHANNEL for transmission and, usually, what Mr. Malick is saying is more complex and abstract than what one gets on the TV machine.
  2. Make sure you’re tuned to the Malick Channel to “read” his visual subtitles; all that’s spoken, though, is in English.
  3. Now a series of words and concepts so you’ll have your brain on the right channel or frequency… before the film begins:
Magical Realism
The Art of Intuitive Montage
Naturalistic Cinema
Organic Poetry
Simplicity of the Everyday
What’s really big: COSMIC
What’s not as big as it seems: NOT Cosmic
Life, as most ordinary human beings know it


If you can’t latch on to most of that, watching “The Tree of Life,” you’ll probably hate this movie. If you CAN, you will love it… and be moved by it, whatever values and fears you carry inside.

The first sentence I wrote after walking out of the auditorium that screened “The Tree of Life,” was: “It’s been a long time since I had an epiphany.”

I don’t want to sound overboard here, but that’s pretty much how I felt as the film made its quiet conclusion of jubilation with all the cast walking together in a sun-bright surf.

Following decades of rumination on “The Tree of Life,” Malick has crafted another realistic, but dreamlike film. It seems to be his most personal, and one that made me flash on my own past, as it relates to the same stuff most everybody goes through, growing up… and living a life.

Much of the speech is monologue, whispered, or spoken sotto voce as one would, alone, in prayer or supplication. Some of the dialogue has actually been attenuated down on the soundtrack, purposely, with, either, natural sound or beautiful, appropriate music (some familiar) welling up in the film’s sonic foreground. It gives the picture what could be called, a sonically-produced poetic distance.

It’s Malick way of trying to get you back on his poetry frequency… these effective shenanigans. Go with them—or you’ll get lost.

Hopefully, without going overboard, again: I saw shots of space and eavenly bodies out in space, as well as natural land, sea and skyscapes on or near Earth that came close to taking my breath. Some sequences in “The Tree of Life” update visions first put to the big screen by Stanley Kubrick in “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Moreover, Malick put me in a mood much like I felt after first seeing the Kubrick classic, over 30 years ago.

(Lunching with an elderly Keir Dullea will do that.)

I hasten to add: there are no rocket ships, space suits or HAL 9000s in “The Tree of Life.” And, except for a surprising CGI scene of ancient creatures that appear, briefly, in a gentle river setting, everything in “The Tree of Life” looks about as real and natural as real, natural gets.

The family life of the O’Briens is chronicled with Malick’s broad brush. It fluctuates from the mundane simplicity of routine life of the mid-Fifties in Waco , Texas to the present, where Jack, now an adult, is confronted with contemporary living in an urban setting of technological success not yet determined whether or not it will be coupled with progress. That’s what Sean Penn’s character wears on his face throughout the film.

Brad Pitt is well-grounded and really genuine as the father, Mr. O’Brien. Penn, as Jack, is in deep anguish as the grown up, eldest son of O’Brien and his wife (and the mother), played exquisitely by Jessica Chastain (“Jolene”). A boy named Hunter McCracken gives quite a sensitive turn as young Jack.

Jessica Chastain Sean Penn

To the chagrin of some, I’m sure, Malick’s palette is ever so more grandiose than the brush he puts to it. The visual injections he makes of, what could be called, the Cosmic, may have been included as a contrast to the universality of ordinary human life and family that stretches over a wide gulf of time.

Some might call “The Tree of Life” pretentious. I agree, like the Bible, it is pretentious, but I liked the film. Many of those labeling it pretentious are probably about to say, next, that they didn’t like “The Tree of Life” very much, if at all.

My personal sense of what this serious, reverential film attempts… is to reach past human conflict and dissension in modern life, and grasp at something common to all, whether or not they believe in a supreme being… or, on the other hand, admit to not knowing which might be the case.

If one wishes to accuse Terrence Malick of being self-absorbed for taking on such a task over such a long period of time, I say, right on, Terry! And, thank you for knocking yourself out, man.

Good artists are always doing that.

(Addendum: Two days following my seeing “The Tree of Life,” Malick’s film has taken the big Kahuna at Cannes, The Palme d’Or. An accolade well-deserved.)

The Tree of Life” official site. In limited release 5/27.

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Gary Chew was a classical music host, programmer and producer on Capital Public Radio’s KXPR 88.9FM, Sacramento for 18 years. He retired in January 2007. Read more about Gary's long and storied career here.

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