Terence Malick’s Tree of Life is a very challenging film, to watch and review, the latter because of the former. While the cinematography, mise en scene and the visuals generally are superb, the narrative is lacking in focus and the style can feel overly long at times. Now before I get into this review, for Malick fans especially, two things that readers should be aware of. 1) This is my first viewing of this film ever and 2) this is also my first time viewing a Terence Malick film.
Tree of Life is slow. Very, very slow so patience is required when viewing. It’s not so slow that it put me to sleep, but it is slow enough that you might feel like parts are overly long. For example, the film at one point just suddenly jumps into an extended montage relating to the creation of the universe and, while visually excellent and does fit in nicely with the sequence straight afterwards, feels overly long. Also, the dialogue in this film is quite sparse with most of it being in voice overs. Thankfully, the performances of Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain as husband and wife in a small late 50s town is excellent and believable. Pitt’s character is a very stern father, with a realist approach to life whilst Chastain’s character is a loving housewife and mother who is much more religious in temperament and has a very different world view. Part of the conflict of the film lies here, but really, most of the film focuses on a trio of brothers and their childhood throughout most of the second and third act, so this aspect of growing up is the main narrative thrust, although each part of the narrative is interrelated. Unfortunately, the way in which the non linear structure is used makes the narrative sometimes difficult to follow and by consequence, the relationship between it’s different ideas becomes unclear. It feels like a puzzle and not in the mystery movie sense. So this aspect does slightly make up for it’s difficulty to follow because it starts to make more sense when you put it together, but I don’t think most audiences will appreciate it.
There are also heavy Christian aspects to this film, made immediately obvious through a quote from the Book of Job. In an opening voice over, Chasatain says something to the effect of “there are two ways to live your life: by nature or by grace.” This sets up the jumping off point for the more philosophical undercurrent of the film and is even more interesting for the fact that it sets up this Christianity vs nature concept. But it feels like the film contradicts itself: it sets this up, yet the nature is depicted as so immensely beautiful, yet some might see this natural beauty as proof of Godliness: “if this is what you call God, then God is not dead” to quote an Agalloch song. But perhaps to avoid contradictions, it might be more meaningful to consider this as a set up for the differences between Chastain and Pitt. The philosophical aspects of the film overall, however, are rather hit and miss with occasional throwaway lines that don’t seem to be of any particular relevance, but when it does strike a relevant note, it can be provocative. However, I probably wouldn’t fault anyone who considers the movie pretentious because at times it can feel like that but as a whole, it’s borderline.
The visuals, as I stated before, are excellent. The creation of the earth sequence looks like a high quality nature documentary, the roaming steadicam camerawork is quite immersive and at some points is very ethereal, at other times very personal. The shots of nature, of forests, of trees The soundtrack is primarily classical music that works mostly well except on the occasion that the volume of it in the mix can make the dialogue, if there’s any at the time, seem a bit drowned out. However, that grass is amazing. No joke, best depiction of grass I’ve seen in a film, I never thought it could be so visually arresting. One thing I also have to mention that is really strange is a small sequence with some CGI dinosaurs that really conflict with the naturalistic style of the movie and just sticks out a lot. That’s probably the only negative about the visuals of the film.
To close, Tree of Life is a meandering film. It has some occasionally thought provoking or emotionally connecting moments, but it suffers due to how it’s story is presented and it’s pacing. But on the plus side, it is incredible visually speaking and those with the patience to sit through the whole thing will find something to like about it. For all it’s faults, it’s definitely something worth watching if you have the patience for it.