Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life

Reviews of the latest films.
May 27 2011 3:29 PM

TheTree of Life

When Terrence Malick sees a tree, he really sees it.

Elsewhere in Slate, Jessica Winter examines unknown actors in juicy parts, and Forrest Wickman tests your ability to tell apart Terrence Malick scenes from nature documentaries.

After you've seen Tree of Life, check out our Spoiler Special discussion:

You can also download the program here, or you can subscribe to the Spoiler Special podcast feed via iTunes or directly with our RSS feed.

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How exactly this cosmic-history segment gets away with not being portentous is anybody's guess. Maybe it's the music, a mix of soaring Romantic themes (Mahler, Brahms) and a limpid original score by Alexandre Desplat. Or the special effects, which are extraordinary but never spectacular. Kubrick's shots of outer space in 2001: A Space Odyssey felt ominous and mythic; Malick's have the quiet accuracy of a NASA video sent from space. Watching the asteroid that will kill off the dinosaurs hurtle toward the atmosphere, we think, "There was a moment when this happened," and are awed. But the astronomical flashback isn't without a measure of wit as well; the sheer scope of it is a kind of joke on the impossibility of storytelling. The notion of returning to the birth of the universe to kick off your movie is a way of going Tristram Shandy—who couldn't tell his story without a detailed account of his conception—one better.

The middle section of the film, in which we follow Jack's childhood in a series of fragmented memories from birth until about the age of 12, is as astonishingly precise a rendering of the way the world looks to a child as I've seen on film. You know that Emily Dickinson poem about "a certain slant of light"? Every slant of light in this movie is a certain slant of light, evocative of an individual and irreplaceable moment in time. The camera—wielded by Emanuel Lubezki, who also performed cinematographic miracles in Children of Men—not only creates visually beautiful images (like the recurring painterly close-ups of the mother rinsing her feet in a lawn sprinkler.) It provides Jack's perspective on what we're seeing, makes us notice the things he notices, whether it's light from a jack-o'-lantern held down at a toddler's eye level or a tiny, momentous shift of expression on a parent's face.

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After the profundity and beauty of this Texas section, The Tree of Life's last 20 minutes, in which we rejoin Sean Penn in his skyscraper and accompany him on an enigmatic encounter with his past self, felt like a letdown to me, a somewhat banal coda to a film that previously soared so dazzlingly high. (I won't say more here, but the ending is discussed in the Spoiler Special podcast attached to this review.) Maybe any film that starts with the Big Bang has to end with something of a whimper. The beginning of life—Jack's, the earth's, everyone's—is something that, however mysteriously, has already happened. The end of life is still, perhaps mercifully, impossible to imagine. In the meantime, see this movie.