Movie Review: “The Tree of Life”

Written by Brent Holmes October 20, 2011

By Brent Holmes

A perfect film.

Terrence Mallick’s The Tree of Life is perhaps one of the most ambitious films made in quite a while. The Palme D’Or winner is nothing short of vast and the issues the film tackles dig as deep as the largest tree’s roots. The history of evolution and the questions of the metaphysical realms are observed through the fragile, yet detailed lens of the American family.

Spanning several decades, The Tree of Life is by no means intended for those who would prefer a straightforward narrative. The first act balances the death of a son, the career of his brother, and planet formations. The second follows the childhood of the two brothers in the 1950s and the third act returns to the challenges of the first. These acts are by no means short, each one is over an hour long. This is not a film for those with short attention spans.

This is probably one of the best looking films ever made. The image is amazingly detailed with an incredible focus. There isn’t a shot in this film that doesn’t look perfect. The film’s content is equally deep with a focus on almost everything from questions of faith, science, family structures, death, the meaning of life, and how little screen time Sean Penn can get.

The performances are all amazing. Brad Pitt shows good range as a domineering hypocritical father. Jessica Chastain is brilliant as the opposite loving mother character. The child actors are all strong. Sean Penn’s acting is probably the weakest, solely because he is only on screen for about ten minutes since most of the film is of his youth. Most of Penn’s work ends up being done by Hunter McCracken whose journey towards adulthood is plagued with confusion about violence, money, and sex.

The Tree of Life is a film of duality and contradictions. Early in the film a battle between nature and grace is established. Grace is forgiving, nature is narcissistic and self-obsessed. Yet while Jack’s childhood is surrounded by compassionate trees and animals, his adult life is one spent in a unconcerned metropolis. During the first act, the evolution of mankind is presented as a battle between Nature’s natural selection and Grace’s live and let live approach. As Jack grows up, his struggle between his natural oedipus complex and forgiveness of his disciplinarian father are a highly compelling exploration of the idea.

The final act, like Fellinni’s 8 1/2, is a collection of ambiguous scenes wherein the visual element speaks, rather than shows the development of the characters and their conclusion to the conflicts of nature and grace. Of the three acts, this one is the most confusing and disjointed.

The Tree of Life is visually and thematically stunning. It is a film that wrestles with philosophy and theology in a way that has never been done before: through the evolution of humanity. This is a film that could very well age into one of the greatest films of all time.

My Rating: 10/10

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About Brent Holmes

Brent Holmes is a Film Studies and English Major attending Huron University College at the University of Western Ontario where he is working towards a PhD in Film Studies. He currently writes for We Eat Films and The Western Gazette (on the latter, he serves as Arts & Life editor).

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