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.

(Continued from Page 1)

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.

Advertisement

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.

TODAY IN SLATE

Foreigners

More Than Scottish Pride

Scotland’s referendum isn’t about nationalism. It’s about a system that failed, and a new generation looking to take a chance on itself. 

Yes, Black Families Tend to Spank More. That Doesn’t Mean It’s Good for Black Kids.

Why Greenland’s “Dark Snow” Should Worry You

If You’re Outraged by the NFL, Follow This Satirical Blowhard on Twitter

The Best Way to Organize Your Fridge

Politics

The GOP’s Focus on Fake Problems

Why candidates like Scott Walker are building campaigns on drug tests for the poor and voter ID laws.

Sports Nut

Giving Up on Goodell

How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.

Is It Worth Paying Full Price for the iPhone 6 to Keep Your Unlimited Data Plan? We Crunch the Numbers.

Farewell! Emily Bazelon on What She Will Miss About Slate.

  News & Politics
Weigel
Sept. 16 2014 7:03 PM Kansas Secretary of State Loses Battle to Protect Senator From Tough Race
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 16 2014 4:16 PM The iPhone 6 Marks a Fresh Chance for Wireless Carriers to Kill Your Unlimited Data
  Life
The Eye
Sept. 16 2014 12:20 PM These Outdoor Cat Shelters Have More Style Than the Average Home
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 15 2014 3:31 PM My Year As an Abortion Doula
  Slate Plus
Slate Plus Video
Sept. 16 2014 2:06 PM A Farewell From Emily Bazelon The former senior editor talks about her very first Slate pitch and says goodbye to the magazine.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 16 2014 6:23 PM Bryan Cranston Reenacts Baseball’s Best Moments to Promote the Upcoming Postseason
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 16 2014 6:40 PM This iPhone 6 Feature Will Change Weather Forecasting
  Health & Science
Science
Sept. 16 2014 4:09 PM It’s All Connected What links creativity, conspiracy theories, and delusions? A phenomenon called apophenia.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 15 2014 9:05 PM Giving Up on Goodell How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.