The Tree of Life (2011)

Synopsis: The story of a family in Waco, Texas in 1956. The eldest son witnesses the loss of innocence and struggles with his parents’ conflicting teachings.

For more info and to watch the trailer, click here:

Who chose it: Brent

Why I chose it: I’d yet to see a Terrence Malick film, even though his entire filmography looks intriguing to me. I chose “The Tree of Life” as my first Malick film because it looked the most beautiful from the trailers. And as a general rule, whenever Brad Pitt is in a movie that’s a sign that I should pay attention to it.

Leah’s Review:

It’s been a few days since we watched “The Tree of Life”, but I find myself still processing this film. I would describe it as part “2001: A Space Odyssey” (with somewhat more graspable themes), part Discovery Channel’s “Planet Earth” (with less narration), and part “Stand By Me” (with much darker overtones). With that said, this isn’t a light movie to be watched causally. Like so many of the other artistic films we’ve viewed so far, “The Tree of Life” is not to be watched, but experienced.

The movie begins with various shots of the O’Brien family (intercut with shots of the outdoors) and narration from the mother character (played by Jessica Chastain) as she explains the difference between grace and nature:

“The nuns taught us there were two ways through life – the way of nature and the way of grace. You have to choose which one you’ll follow. Grace doesn’t try to please itself. It accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked. It accepts insults and injuries. Nature only wants to please itself. Get others to please it too. It likes to lord it over them. To have its own way. It finds reasons to be unhappy. When all the world is shining around it. And love is smiling through all things.”

As the story unravels, we discover that Mrs. O’Brien and her husband (Brad Pitt), each with wildly different personalities, ways raising their children, ways of living life and seeing the world, each characterize grace and nature. Mrs. O’Brien (Grace) is very open with her affection towards her three sons and encourages them to be creative, to play, to be forgiving, and to love. Mr. O’Brien (Nature) is harder on his sons, showing little affection towards them, teaching them to be tough and that they can’t get ahead in life by being kind.

Most of the movie is shown from the perspective of Jack (played by Hunter McCracken and Sean Penn respectively), the oldest son, as he grows up with his parent’s very different perspectives and struggles to choose which to look up to. We meet Jack as an adult as he has flashbacks from his childhood and tries to reconcile with what happened in his family and how this connects with his relationship with God.

“The Tree of Life” takes a different (and rather remarkable) approach of showing three boys growing up in the 1950’s- not making it your typical period piece. Thought-provoking narration about God and faith, stunning cinematography, and subjective themes that leave the viewer with no real take-aways- this movie is one of the most spellbinding, bewildering, and unique films I have ever seen. Like I said before, it’s an experience above all else.

So did I like “The Tree of Life”? I honestly don’t know. I wouldn’t say I disliked it, but I’m not sure I’d be in a hurry to watch it again either. If you’re in the mood for a complex, artistic, and emotionally charged movie- I’d say give it a go.

Brent’s Review:

Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life” is an ambitious undertaking. I’ll begin with a recapitulation of the basic plot. We begin with a small family in Waco, TX – The O’Briens – as they receive word that one of their sons has been killed, in what I assume is armed service. They grieve and we watch. The film then intercuts a 20-minute sequence of beauty and awe as we witness the cosmos dance before us, just before jumping forward to see one of the adult O’Briens (played by Sean Penn) wander morosely through New York City. He sulks for a bit and eventually wanders into a wasteland of sorts as we snap back to the beginning of the O’Brien narrative and see his upbringing before his brother’s death, which is the focus of the remainder of the film.

“The Tree of Life” is disorienting. I didn’t understand this film in its fullness. While it holds great beauty and left a deep impression, I admit I don’t have much yearning to return for further examination. I’ve struggled to form coherent thoughts on this film, so I will opt instead to leave a few general comments.

First, “The Tree of Life” is a beautiful film. It’s a film that could be watched with the sound off. The cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki and Malick’s skewered camerawork coalesce into living paintings. While you might expect the bulk of these shots to come in the “cosmos” sequence, I found that the most beautiful shots were of the Waco sequences. Malick’s navigation of 1950s America was breathtaking.

Second – and probably a related thought – I was struck by how much the setting came alive. Characters roam the streets in what feels like an actual town, play, and even run through the mist left behind by insecticide sprayers in one scene, which I’ve learned was a common event in that time. The set breathed so fully that I felt I could have stepped through the screen into Waco, TX in 1956. Furthermore, the small-town feel Malick creates mimics my own experience growing up in a small town, which itself feels like it was preserved in time fifty years ago.

Finally, “The Tree of Life” has a deep memory – after all, Penn’s character spends the bulk of the run time remembering his childhood. The film ends with a beautiful “Heaven” sequence, during which all of the characters recognize and remember one another. Is Malick suggesting that memory is integral for the human experience – or am I missing the boat? Probably the latter.

I’ll end with a brief reflection. One theme kept recurring for myself throughout the film. Juxtaposing the creation of life with the story of a family in a small town suggested to me a conflation of the vast and the minuscule. Life is flat: all things carry equal weight. I think that’s a beautiful idea worth exploring further. I also think that’s a creation of my own imagination, which “The Tree of Life” happened to inspire in me.

Up Next: We’re watching one of the classic films (as well as one of the oldest) on our list: The 1931 mystery-crime drama “M” with (one of Leah’s favorite old-school actors) Peter Lorre.

Peace out, kids.


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