Ed reviews 'The Tree of Life' 

click to enlarge Brad Pitt stars in Terence Malick's long-awaited new film, 'The Tree of Life.' Submitted photo.
  • Brad Pitt stars in Terence Malick's long-awaited new film, 'The Tree of Life.' Submitted photo.

4.5 stars


Out of all the amazing images in The Tree of Life, I was most taken with the hands of the father played so well by Brad Pitt. Those hands, trying to push, protect, control, envelop, guide. Those were my dad's hands, and mine now, as we keep trying. Trying.

I miss my dad. Over the last few years of his life, I watched him grow increasingly pale - his hair wispier, his eyes more distant. He kept fading until the day he was gone. I feel myself dissipating now. Slowly, to be sure, and I'm certainly here far more often than I'm not, but it's happening.

The Tree of Life is written and directed by Terrence Malick, whose other feature films are Badlands (1973), Days of Heaven (1978), The Thin Red Line (1998) and The New World (2005). In my review of his combat-related feature, The Thin Red Line I wrote, "If you're interested in a cinematic meditation on life and death that actually has substance, rent Peter Weir's Fearless. I wish Malick had. Then he might have realized that pretty pictures and vague pondering do not a movie make. War is hell and, moments of brilliance aside, so is The Thin Red Line.

Malick's new production is a 138-minute meditation on life, the universe, and our place in it. The impressionist film includes extended images depicting the creation of the universe, the birth of our world, the age of the dinosaurs, a detailed portrait of a Texas family in the '50s, a decades-later visit with one of the now-grown children from that family, and images of an afterlifeish reunion on a beach. Alexandre Desplat supplies the effective score.

I don't know what the me that wrote the 1998 Thin Red Line review would have made of all this. I may very well have praised the wonderfully-done family scenes, acknowledged the beauty of the other segments and made wisecracks about the languid pacing, the moments of Kubrickian trippiness and the questioning voice-overs. The 2011 me recognized various Malick traits I found annoying in the past, but The Tree of Life held me rapt all the way through.

The closest I came to distraction was during the scenes of a distressed Sean Penn as Jack, the aforementioned middle-age son. It seemed wasteful to take an actor of Penn's caliber and give him a nearly wordless part where he only gets to show one emotion. But even as I noted that, I remained under the spell of the film.

The most fascinating parts were those of the family in the '50s. The O'Briens: Three boys, including young Jack (Hunter McCracken), nurtured by their mother (Jessica Chastain) and more overtly guided by their father. The setting is idyllic, but the frustrations and conflicts of being part of a family are all there. The joys and trials of the O'Brien family seem universal because they are presented so specifically.

At the end of the movie, I talked with another writer who seemed similarly affected by the experience. A colleague approached and suggested that we had just watched the longest insurance company commercial ever made. When he heard us talking about the film in serious tones, he was courteous enough to stop joking.

My suggestion to you is this: to avoid being bored silly, don't go to see The Tree of Life unless you are in a meditative mood. And be prepared to discuss the reunion scene at the end. For what it's worth, I thought it was a representation of the reconciliation most of us make (or wish to make) with the people and memories that affected us most.

The big questions and big images in The Tree of Life reminded me of when I was a boy and my father got the telescope out at night, focused it with his big hands and showed me and my brother and sister the heavens. "Kind of makes you feel small, doesn't it?" he said and I kept quiet. What I thought was, "No it doesn't. I'm just as important a part of everything as all of the stars in the sky. All of us are." I still think that. Each of us is a vital piece of the tapestry of the universe. It wouldn't be the same without us. We matter as much as anything does.


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What others are saying (17)

Portland Mercury Life, the Universe, and Everything The Tree of Life or, Terrence Malick's Jurassic Park. by Erik Henriksen 06/09/2011
Colorado Springs Independent Twisted branches: The Tree of Life For all its oddity and majesty, Tree forgoes real mystery. by Jonathan Kiefer 06/23/2011
Style Weekly Across the Universe Terrence Malick explores the nature of existence in "The Tree of Life." by Wayne Melton 06/14/2011
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Tucson Weekly Getting Existential Terrence Malick offers a perplexing film that is exceptional in many ways by Colin Boyd 06/16/2011
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Charleston City Paper The Tree of Life tells multiple tales of creation The Tree of Life, winner of the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival, is a viscerally astonishing portrait of childhood. by Felicia Feaster 06/22/2011
Boise Weekly The Projector: Movies opening Friday, June 24 Talking trucks, a trashy teacher and the tree of life, plus some special screenings. It's all at the movies. 06/24/2011
Indy Week Terrence Malick's latest visual epic, The Tree of Life Malick claimed the prestigious Palme d'Or with The Tree of Life, and with this effort, he's tripping along at a rate of about one film per decade. by David Fellerath 06/15/2011
Memphis Flyer The Whole of the World Terrence Malick’s audacious The Tree of Life. by Chris Herrington 06/23/2011
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Colorado Springs Independent Opening this week Bad Teacher, Cars 2 and other film events happening around town. 06/23/2011
Creative Loafing Atlanta The Tree of Life's pretensions bear food for thought Brad Pitt delivers impressive, minimal performance in Terrence Malick's latest by Curt Holman 06/03/2011
Charleston City Paper A nod to the best films of 2011, in all their ambiguity Welcome to 2011 at the movies — where the only thing certain about the best movies was their uncertainty. by Scott Renshaw 12/28/2011
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