I’ve received several negative comments for my pick as the best film of 2011: Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, a movie that divided critics and audiences, some calling it a pretentious piece of crap and others calling it an astounding masterpiece. I obviously agree with the latter and hopefully this review will make clear why this unique film made its way to number one on my (and many others) top 10 list.
The Tree of Life is not a movie. It is an experience. As Roger Ebert wrote, “the only other film I’ve seen with this boldness of vision is Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and it lacked Malick’s fierce evocation of human feeling.”
This was my initial impression of the film as well.
Comparing Malick and Kubrick
Just as in Kubrick’s sci-fi masterpiece, The Tree of Life also lacks a linear storyline and focuses more on its overarching themes of the meaning of life and our place in the universe.
A semblance of a plot revolves around a 1950s Texas family led by Brad Pitt in what may be his finest performance. Intimate scenes of ordinary life is seen through the perspective of Pitt’s oldest son Jack (Hunter McCracken) who wanders through the film viewing his father as a mean, authoritative figure who destroys and his mother (Jessica Chastain) as an angelic presence who heals. Jack’s relationship with his younger brother, R.L. (Laramie Eppler) is made up of the same combative nature of his parents’ relationship: love and hate.
All the while, these scenes of family life are interspliced with eye-popping scenes of nature (the unbelievable cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki is the real star of the film). In the present day an adult Jack (now played by Sean Penn) mourns the loss of his younger brother in a technology saturated world that seems to have eradicated all traces of nature. An unusual sequence in the beginning of the film depicting the creation of the universe, as well as a brief interaction between dinosaurs (which could be interpreted as nature’s first act of kindness) may seem out of place, but Malick is determined to incorporate all life, planet, animal, human, dinosaur, into his film and he does so magnificently.
Malick as non-traditional director
Even though Malick is not known for instructing his actors as directors traditionally do, the performances in the film are exception, particularly Pitt, the radiant Chastain and the utterly powerful work by the two younger actors McCracken and Eppler. This is some of the finest work by child actors I have ever seen.
I do not claim to know the entire meaning behind The Tree of Life, but I can honestly say that it moved me in ways only few films have. Far too few. So, with that, I’m sure that many who watch this film will hate it (numerous negative comments have made there way online since its awarding winning premiere at Cannes last May), but if you approach the film with no preconceived notions it is very likely you will come away from it like I have and see it as a masterpiece.