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The Tree of Life (2011)

"Before viewing" talks don't have spoilers, but since there's no "After viewing" talk for this one, comments may have spoilers. More»» by Randy Heffner

Is the film worth your time?

I’ll say upfront that I find The Tree of Life to be very much worth the time. I’ll also say that it is the type of enigmatic and obscure exploration of life that demands viewers to be highly engaged and to reserve judgment. With any film, it is good to sit back and receive, letting the film’s flow and images speak. With The Tree of Life, it is absolutely essential to do this — the film is primarily a flow of image and quasi-random vignettes. There is a sketchy narrative around which the pieces adhere, yet this itself seems to be not central to, but rather simply one of, the elements of the film’s exploration.

So, if it’s ambiguous and ethereal, why is it worth seeing? Because its center of gravity and the nuanced and meditative way the film revolves around it gives viewers the opportunity — but it is an opportunity of which they must actively avail themselves — to richly feel some of life’s deepest questions while, at the same time, sensing and seeing the opposite ends of a continuum of life responses to those question. Yet, in our day-to-day lives, we may not draw the connection between the questions and the responses, so the film’s juxtaposition of them is all the more an important part of its exploration.

In the midst of tragedy, life and the world seem heartless and cruel. Is there a meaning to it? Why do we think of life and family and love as beautiful things if our existence is mere chance amidst cold and mechanical operation of the laws of physics? Where is God, where is love and care, when tragedy threatens — and then actually strikes? What risk do we take in letting ourselves love? What drives us to live like the cold, mechanical, self-seeking laws of physics? If there’s no meaning, why do we love? Do we love because, deep down, we know that there is meaning? Do we make meaning by our love, or does our love connect us to the meaning that is already there amidst the coldness? The Tree of Life might well be called a meditation — some have said a prayer — around such questions.

Yes, it is very much worth seeing, but only if you are ready and willing to receive a very different type of film experience. See it when you’re alert, physically and emotionally, so that you can best stay engaged. Go with the flow of the film, taking each sequence and each scene as it comes, on its own, waiting until later to let some of the pieces fall together and then trying to sort through how the rest might fit. It is a true and lasting gift that Terrence Malick has given us.

The story, loosely constructed as it is, revolves around a 1950s family of five. The three children, all boys, do the sorts of things that many young boys do: play, explore, test, run, fight. The father, having given up dreams of being a musician, makes his way as best he can in the world of business. The mother loves and cares for them all. Along the way, one of the sons dies, which is the tragedy that drives the core of the film’s exploration. This is less a story than a stage set, a question asked, leading to more questions asked. Around these questions revolve the images, vignettes, and flow of the film. Running time: 138 min.

There is very little content to note, perhaps only the slightest mild language and one instance of a parent hitting a child.

  • Director: Terrence Malick
  • Screenplay: Terrence Malick
  • Leads: Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain, Hunter McCracken, Sean Penn, Laramie Eppler, Tye Sheridan
  • Cinematography: Emmanuel Lubezki
  • Music: Alexandre Desplat (plus much very well-placed classical music)

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