The Tree of Life: Unashamedly epic reflection on love and loss | Sunday Observer

The Tree of Life: Unashamedly epic reflection on love and loss

21 February, 2021

The Tree of Life is a 2011 American epic experimental drama film written and directed by Terrence Malick and featuring Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, Hunter McCracken, Laramie Eppler, Jessica Chastain, and Tye Sheridan in his debut feature film role.

The film chronicles the origins and meaning of life by way of a middle-aged man's childhood memories of his family living in the 1950s Texas, interspersed with imagery of the origins of the known universe and the inception of life on Earth.

After several years in development and missing its planned 2009 and 2010 release dates, The Tree of Life premiered in a competition at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, where it was awarded the Palme d'Or. It ranked number one on review aggregator Metacritic's "Top Ten List of 2011", and made more critics' year-end lists in 2011 than any other film.

It appeared in the 2012 Sight & Sound critics' poll of the world's top 250 films as well as BBC's poll of the greatest American films, one of the few 21st century works to be included in either. The film was also later named the seventh-greatest film since 2000 in a BBC poll of 177 critics.

In December 2019, The Tree of Life topped The Associated Press' list of the best films of the 2010s. The Tree of Life received three Oscar nominations: Best Picture, Best Director and Best Cinematography.

Philosophical approach

Many reviewers have noted the philosophical and theological themes of the film. Catholic author and now auxiliary bishop of Los Angeles Fr. Robert Barron, reviewing The Tree of Life for a Chicago Tribune blog, noted that "in the play of good and evil, in the tension between nature and grace, God is up to something beautiful, though we are unable to grasp it totally...“Tree of Life” is communicating this same difficult but vital lesson."

The Catholic magazine America called the film "a philosophical exploration of grief, theodicy and the duality of grace and human nature". They described the final beach scene as "the greatest film depiction of eschatological bodily resurrection".

Rabbi David Wolpe says, "that Terrence Malick's new film "Tree of Life" opens with a quotation from Job. That quotation holds the key to the film and in some sense, the key to our attitude toward life." He added that "The agony of the parents, the periodic cruelty of the father — all are the powerful but passing dramas that for the moment entirely preoccupy us as we watch the movie. But then we are drawn back to a world so much bigger than our hour upon the stage that we know again how essentially small is each human story."

According to Bob Mondello, the film shows, "To understand the death of a young man, we need to understand everything that led to his creation, starting with creation itself."

Kristen Scharold compared the film to Augustine's Confessions, and noted how one voiceover is nearly identical to a quote from Fyodor Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov.

Critical response

Early reviews for The Tree of Life were polarized. After being met with both boos and applause at its premiere at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, the film received mixed early reviews. It went on to be awarded the Palme d'Or.

Two of its producers, Bill Pohlad and Sarah Green, accepted the prize on behalf of the reclusive Malick. The Tree of Life is the first American film to win the Palme d'Or since Fahrenheit 9/11 in 2004. The head of the jury, Robert De Niro, said it was difficult to choose a winner, but The Tree of Life "ultimately fit the bill". De Niro explained, "It had the size, the importance, the intention, whatever you want to call it, that seemed to fit the prize."

The Tree of Life has since garnered critical acclaim. On Rotten Tomatoes, 85% of critics have given the film a positive review based on 286 reviews, with an average rating of 8.16/10. The site's critics consensus reads "Terrence Malick's singularly deliberate style may prove unrewarding for some, but for patient viewers, Tree of Life is an emotional as well as visual treat."

On Metacritic, which assigns a weighted mean rating out of 100 reviews from film critics, the film has a rating score of 85 based on 50 reviews, indicating "universal acclaim".

Roger Ebert gave the film four stars and wrote: “The Tree of Life is a film of vast ambition and deep humility, attempting no less than to encompass all of existence and view it through the prism of a few infinitesimal lives. The only other film I've seen with this boldness of vision is Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey and it lacked Malick's fierce evocation of human feeling. There were once several directors who yearned to make no less than a masterpiece, but now there are only a few. Malick has stayed true to that hope ever since his first feature in 1973.”

Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian awarded it five stars and lauded it as an "unashamedly epic reflection on love and loss" and a "mad and magnificent film." Todd McCarthy of The Hollywood Reporter states "Brandishing an ambition it's likely no film, including this one, could entirely fulfill, The Tree of Life is nonetheless a singular work, an impressionistic metaphysical inquiry into mankind's place in the grand scheme of things that releases waves of insights amidst its narrative imprecisions."

Justin Chang of Variety states the film, "Represents something extraordinary" and "is in many ways his simplest yet most challenging work, a transfixing odyssey through time and memory that melds a young boy's 1950s upbringing with a magisterial rumination on the Earth's origins." Peter Travers of Rolling Stone states "Shot with a poet's eye, Malick's film is a groundbreaker, a personal vision that dares to reach for the stars."

A. O. Scott of The New York Times gave the film much praise and stated, "The sheer beauty of this film is almost overwhelming, but as with other works of religiously minded art, its aesthetic glories are tethered to a humble and exalted purpose, which is to shine the light of the sacred on secular reality".

Total Film gave the film a five-star review (denoting 'outstanding'): "The Tree of Life is beautiful. Ridiculously, rapturously beautiful.

You could press 'pause' at any second and hang the frame on your wall." Richard Corliss of Time named it one of the Top 10 Best Movies of 2011.