The Tree of Life (2011)

By Afra Nariman

The Tree of Life (2011)

Directed by: Terrence Malick
Stars: Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain, Hunter McCracken, Sean Penn

Plot Summary

A highly philosophical film that explores the nature of life and existence through a story that revolves around a family in 1950’s Texas.


This is a review for Terrance Malick’s Extended Version of the film:

There are no combination of words that could do this film justice. Transcending space and time, The Tree of Life is an epic of cosmic proportions that overwhelms and absorbs you with sublime visuals of nature, life and the cosmos; capturing the entirety of the human experience and controlling your senses, as the essence of the human mind and the origins of life itself, unravel on your screen. The impact that this film has on your senses and your emotions is truly ineffable. With the help of masterful, fluid cinematography and video editing, you are placed in a film and a story like no other; finding yourself getting lost in the world that the film elegantly illustrates, and retreating into the ponderous thoughts that will naturally arise in your mind, as you reflect on your own life and your own place in the universe. The human mind is in dialogue with its own experiences and existence; what Malick gives us in this film is the visual transcript of that dialogue.

The film has its own heartbeat that pulses through every vision of planetary sublimity, natural life, and evolution of life spanning across space and time. The first 45 minutes, or so, of the film is mainly a montage of life, time, the universe and everything else that constitutes existence. Within this opening, we are thrusted into the most hidden corners of the universe, and elusive realms of time. One of the most fascinating “scenes” from the opening montage of life in the cosmos, is of dinosaurs. It’s such a subtle depiction of early life on Earth, and is just one segment of the montage; but for me, everything slowed down during this scene and I was left in awe.

Terrance Malick’s films all have a deeply-rooted and heavenly emphasis on nature, but none of his films portray nature the way that The Tree of Life does. His focus on nature, and on the sublime, is unapologetically on full display. The film enamors you, drags you in, and doesn’t allow you to go back to your own life until you’ve finished watching the life that is taking place in the film. In concert with the visually divine images that enchant you, it is the film’s use of music that dictates everything.

During the beginning parts of the film’s surreal and sublime intro, that I just tried my best to put into words, we hear a short monologue that completely sticks in our mind and prepares us for the story that is to come. Against the backdrop of radiant music, accompanied by a lively montage of the O’Brien family living their life, sublime nature, animals, and some other very real and natural visuals; Mrs. O’Brien poetically and softly speaks:

“The nuns taught us there are 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. Accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked. Accepts insults and injuries.

Nature only wants to please itself. Get others to please it too. 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.”

The film depicts life in the most grounded and natural sense of the word. Immediately after setting up the film with that deeply philosophical and beautifully insightful monologue, Mrs. O’Brien (Jessica Chastain) receives painful and life-shattering news. The film begins with devastation; it begins with an emotional peak. From here, we are essentially sent on the 45 minute, intergalactic excursion into the history of life in the universe, interrupted only by one of the O’Brien children, Jack (Sean Penn) all grown up, reflecting on his childhood.

The bulk of the film takes place back in the 1950s, during Jack’s childhood with his two brothers, his loving mother and his strict father (Brad Pitt). The film highlights the flow of life. The three boys learn about the wonders, joys and hardships that life entails. We are given an intimate look into the family’s beginnings, including when Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien meet, the birth of their first son, and so on. The boys spend much of their childhood playing in the neighborhood with their friends and listening to their father’s, often times harsh, advice and instructions. From an early age, the boys witness many of life’s evils, highlighted by one of the neighborhood kids tragically drowning. Growing up in a home of faith, they come to subtly question their faith in these moments. One of the boys once asks (in dialogue with God);

“How should I be good, if you aren’t?”

The entire film moves at a calm, organic pace that enables you to ponder and reflect. It constantly, yet naturally balances this calmness, while still keeping you completed engaged and on the edge of your seat. It’s truly like no other film.

Brad Pitt’s Mr. O’Brien is perhaps the most controversial and polarizing element of the film. He is extremely strict on his 3 boys in hopes that they will grow up to be responsible and prepared for the reality of life, by trying to groom their understanding of the importance of hard work and ambition. In a moment of reflection, Mr. O’Brien says to his son, Jack:

“You know Jack, all I ever wanted for you was to make you strong and grow up and be your own boss. Maybe I’ve been tough on you. I’m not proud of that.”

Mr. O’Brien

The more you watch him, the more you realize that he falls under the category of people who live through life by way of nature, as introduced to us in the opening monologue of the film that I detailed earlier. In another reflective moment, Mr. O’Brien admits:

“I wanted to be loved because I was great. I lived in shame. I dishonored it all and didn’t notice the glory.”

Mr. O’Brien

Just as the opening monologue outlined; the way of nature constitutes:

[It] only wants to please itself. Get others to please it too. 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.”

Mr. O’Brien, although likely with the best intentions, often times loses sight of what’s important throughout the film, and consequently, his life. Mrs. O’Brien, on the other hand, adheres to the way of grace. Near the end of the film, as they prepare to send Jack, to boarding school, she provides him with a beautiful message that elegantly closes the chapter on this part of the film — the bulk of the story. Her message is:

“The only way to be happy is to love. Unless you love, your life will flash by. Do good to them… Wonder… Hope…”

Mrs. O’Brien

The film returns to Sean Penn’s Jack in the present day, and without saying anything distinctive about the ending; it ends with a long, heavenly scene that perfectly puts a cosmic cap on the film.

The Tree of Life features subtly, incredible performances by Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain; as it tells a transcendent story of life, through an intimate study of the O’Brien family, the peaks and valleys of their life and the ways in which the three children were shaped by their experiences and upbringing in 1950s Texas. There is a bewitchingly calm intensity throughout the entire film. Starting and ending with life from a cosmic perspective, yet telling such a natural and grounded story about human life; the film shows us that we are just a small spec of life in the entirety of existence, yet our stories are still very important. Life is just as powerful, complex and wondrous; no matter how insignificant any individual’s life is in the grand scheme of an infinite universe. Your story may never be known to anybody outside of your small town, during your small window of life on this planet, but your life is life — you are alive, and that’s reason to wonder, to hope, to live well and to be happy. Terrence Malick has taken a story about a family growing up in a small, town, in a simple time, and has related it to everything, providing us with a deeply philosophical and spiritual film about life and the human experience, both from a personal, grounded level, and from a cosmic one. The Tree of Life transcends all preconceived perceptions of what films are capable of doing. It is truly — really, truly — one of a kind.


Rating: 4 out of 4.

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