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Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, Film/DVD Review

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Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, DVD Review

Movie Review, The Tree of Life: Brad Pitt and Sean Penn Star in the Award Winning Film about Life, Death and Spirituality

Brad PItt in The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick, 2011)Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, starring Sean Penn, Brad Pitt, and Jessica Chastain took a lot of risks. It was experimental and yet steadying, traveling into the void within which our understanding of life and God exists. Though the Midwestern family in this movie is Christian, the more important question this movie asks is: why do humans continue to trust their religion after a tragic death? And how to be grateful amongst so much pain?

Much of the film, including the beginning is in a way reminiscent of Werner Herzog’s films, in which the camera follows an unidentified series of movements, travels, and builds its own perspective, guiding us through landscapes of Earth or inside some metamorphic abstraction of transforming lights, which bend and change places and shape like atoms, like life on a microcosmic scale.

At the film’s beginning, the screen is black and at its center is a flame–like light which bends beautifully and alludes to the inception of life or birth. Voicing over this scene, Jessica Chastain, who plays the mother mourning her dead son, expresses a simple message. She recalls what her mother taught her about how to approach life: there is a path of grace and a path of nature. The path of grace neither rejects nor dispels beauty from ugliness, or life from its struggles, but instead regards it with patience and honesty. I was enticed by this sense of spiritual decency as trends towards religion in American films have suffered over the past decade for God knows why…perhaps it has taken the path of nature, which does as it pleases and takes what it wants.

Most of the movie takes place inside of Sean Penn’s memories, as he recalls his childhood with two brothers and an abusive father (Brad Pitt). The movie’s main theme is family unity–difficult to achieve, since their father, a businessman who brings his luggage home with him, is tearing them apart with his ego.

The snapshots of the children’s childhood takes us through how the father toughens them, teaches them to fight, saying things like, “Don’t wait, just hit him as quickly as possible, so as not to give him a chance,” and telling the mom, “I allow you to live in this house!” The one comfort the movie allows comes through the character of the mother, who is loving to the point of being “weak,” though the tirades she endures at the whims of her husband, for me, speak to the path of grace, which she expresses at the film’s beginning, enduring suffering in the name of love.

Sean Penn in The Tree of LIfe (Terrence Malick, 2011)The movie follows no linear sequence, but instead takes us through spots in Sean Penn’s childhood, which were especially poignant to him, making us sympathetic to the family for their loss. We don’t know how the son died, nor did we see it happen, and the scenes which take place in the present are largely silent, simply showing the mother and father in their age, the brother at his lucrative job in New York City, both groups eventually meeting at their childhood home towards the end of the movie, but with little discussion between them. It’s as if Terrence Malick wanted to be civil and not to dwell on the drama which surrounds a death, but, instead the suffering, which I respected deeply.

Even if you’re not religious, this movie takes the viewer deeper than we know; even atheists can view the inception of life and the death of a human with due regard and grant it its space, as even the science of such processes are miracles. Or how about humanism? This movie preaches it thoroughly, and is ultimately humanist, as it does not push for the viewer to believe in God, as even the mother herself struggles. Questions are asked during the abstract sequences, which touch at the sore nerve of both life and death:

“From where was father born?” The son asks regarding his father’s violence, with forgiveness in the question, since fault stems from cause.

At other times the son’s approach to his father’s existence is brutally honest, ”Just die, die, please take him away God,” he says as he walks through yards in his neighborhood.

But obviously neither the God of movies, nor of real life, answers such prayers. The movie takes place on cruel Earth, where it often seems as if our lord is an overlord, in this case, the charming and yet abusive father. The ending scene does justice to loss without being indulgent. I don’t want to spoil it for any “would be viewers,” but let’s just say it involves a beach, and another leap into the subconscious realm of our sadness, journeying past it and into our ability to forgive, unite and continue on. Regardless of what this painful process means to you, life must be worthwhile, or else we would be at a loss for grace and I would not have cried…the end.

Ezra Prior is a Contributor to The Free George.

The Free George is the online magazine and visitors’ guide of Upstate NY, covering things from Albany to Lake Placid, including Saratoga, the Lake George region and the Adirondacks. Check out our City Blogs section for our extended coverage areas as well.

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