Movie Review: The Tree of Life

By Stephen Rebello

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Brad Pitt, Sean Penn and Jessica Chastain star in Terrence Malick's fifth film in nearly 40 years.


Director: Terrence Malick

MPAA Rating: (PG-13)

Studio: Plan B Entertainment

The Tree of Life—writer-director Terrence Malick’s fifth movie in nearly 40 years—delivers such majesty and metaphysical yearning that at times it’s overwhelming. A memory film, a meditation, a prayer, the film feels intensely personal and, in its abstract, elliptical moviemaking style, profoundly, maddeningly mysterious and more than a tad pretentious.

To demonstrate that his concerns are deep and cosmic, Malick presents a stunningly beautiful, show-stopping imagining of nothing less than the birth of the universe, complete with volcanoes, rolling seas, romping dinosaurs and the early origins of man. It’s jaw-dropping stuff and these sounds and images are so awe-inspiring that they may strike some audience members as esoterically arty as something out of 2001. The Big Bang sequence leads us to smalltown ‘50s Waco, Texas (Malick’s hometown) where the wide-open summer skies are endless and front lawns roll on forever while emotions roil under the surface as a married couple, played by stern, ramrod-like Brad Pitt and pre-Raphaelite angel Jessica Chastain, raise their three rambunctious sons—one of whom we learn, through a telegram, they lose in some unexplained manner. Vietnam, maybe?

Throughout the film, we experience this family’s existence in tiny, “uneventful,” yet intensely vivid moments that are the stuff of all our lives—a child’s terror as a parent loses his temper, the glory of running through fields and alleys as if we had wings, the fear and wonder when death or harm strikes seemingly from out of the blue, the confusion of sexual awakenings, the terrible ache of moving from a house that holds so much shared memory. In later sections of the film, Sean Penn, an Armani-suited architect, the adult version of one the couple’s three sons, wanders a modern Houston, Texas cityscape struggling to make sense of his past and future like some disaffected fugitive out of an Antonioni film.

With artistry, visual sweep and metaphysical heft that sometimes threaten to send the movie into the realm of the ultra pretentious, Malick sets up Big Themes including nature vs. grace and creation vs. annihilation. He dares us not to let his moviemaking might roll right over us and, for much of the film’s 138-minute running time, we’re wowed, even mesmerized. But is Malick telling us that the brief span of our “inconsequential” lives is no small thing? Is he urging us to be kinder and less harsh toward each other? Is he advocating for us to wake up and experience the glory all around us? Make of the movie what you will but The Tree of Life, which just copped the Palm D’Or at Cannes, is mainline Malick. Love him or hate him, he runs splendidly, confidently and unapologetically riot.

Art with a capital A, The Tree of Life is brilliant, exasperating, challenging, profoundly moving and worth every bit of the considerable time and attention that it demands. Time will tell if it’s a landmark movie but it’s unmistakably odd and special. And, even better, Malick has already completing filming another movie starring Ben Affleck, Rachel McAdams, Rachel Weisz and Javier Bardem, among others. That, for the perfectionistic, obsessive auteur, is like being on a tear.

About the Author

Playboy Contributing Editor Stephen Rebello has written many Playboy Interview and 20 Questions features. He is the author of such books as the notorious Bad Movies We Love (with Edward Margulies) and Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho, the latter of which has inspired a dramatic feature film set for production in 2011. His most recent Playboy Interviews include Josh Brolin and Cameron Diaz.


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