By Stephen Swanson, WCCO-TV

Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life is one of the most unusual film epics ever created, both in scope and intention. Mostly grounded in 1950’s Waco, Texas (Malick’s hometown), the focus is on a young family, consisting of a stern, hard-working father (Brad Pitt), a gentle and angelic mother (Jessica Chastain), and three young sons — primarily the eldest, 11 year-old Jack (Hunter McCraken).

In fact, the film is mostly memory snippets from the adult Jack (Sean Penn), whose middle-aged struggles send him into his past in an attempt to sort out the meaning of his existence. Seems simple enough, right? As Samuel L. Jackson said in Jurassic Park, “Hold onto your butts.”

The Tree of Life attempts to go beyond the family struggle at the heart of the film. And by beyond, I mean it takes a major, primordial detour about a quarter of the way through that eventually drops us into the Jurassic period! This detour is both head-scratching and utterly captivating, so much so that I yearn for this sequence to become a proper Malick movie of its own. Whether or not it’s a remnant of Malick’s impossibly epic intentions gone awry, it ultimately works in the finished project.

The film (the 50s Waco portions, at least) is largely a strand of unique, unrehearsable moments. Malick rented a couple blocks in Waco, housed the cast and extras, entrenched them firmly in the 1950s, and then let things happen. The result is an incredible collection of those little memory nuggets you’d never think, at the time, would be branded into your brain forever: dusk’s shimmering light on a bedroom wall, a particularly sudsy bath, or your playful mother waking you up with ice cubes.

As with most Malick films, Tree is filled with dreamy narration, and some of the most astonishing photography in film history. In fact, Tree is, visually, Malick’s magnum opus. You could just watch it without sound, and still take one of the most dazzling, emotional journeys of your life.

The Tree of Life also contains, for my money, the best cinematic portrayal of 20th century American boyhood.

Most audiences are not conditioned for unusual works like The Tree of Life. If you fear you may be in this category, get training. The Tree of Life is everything cinema should be: spellbinding, challenging, and overflowing with humanity.

  1. Carlos Holmes says:

    Saw the fiilm in Philly last night. Found it amusing that a few people ditched the flick and left during the “evolution of life” scene as if National Georgraphics wasn’t what they bargained for. Even more amusing was standing outside of the theatre afterwards, and hearing people (with heavy question marks floating over their head) asking each other what the film was about.
    While I am sure that Criterion Films will eventually include this in their collection (as they did Malik’s “Days of Heaven” like many of the films in their collection, one will not find a lot of value in this movie outside of the cinematography (indeed, of the shots were very nice). The billing of it as being a flick of deep spiritual questions does not deliver that unless you watch this Malik work multiple times — and I am not personally putting myself through that with this film.
    Much of the off-camera narration was mumbling that was difficult to understand — very unhelpful in encouraging the audience to consider the spiritual mysteries presented by the dysfunctional family travails. The last scene in the desert might work well during a zombie movie, but these weren’t zombies; the scene only served confuse the audience more about this movie that they sacrificed two hours on a spirtual question promissary note.

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