Director Terrance Malick has only made 5 films since 1973...the man takes his time. You get an idea of the patience and passion that goes into his film-making while viewing The Tree of Life. Each image of the film seems carefully crafted, yet so completely spontaneous. I can't imagine how many hours of unused film went into each scene. Tree of Life is certainly Malick's most personal film. I don't know much about his background, but one can assume from his age, and the shear precision of the life snap-shots that dot the film, that they had to have come from his own past.
Malick has always been able to maximize the malleability of film as a medium to hit you with an emotional sledgehammer. He did this by focusing on the emotional side of World War II in The Thin Red Line, as well as the awe and mysticism of exploration/conquest in the vastly underrated The New World. His films seem to teeter on the verge of experimentation, and are more for lack of a better word, poetic than your standard Hollywood outing. Terrance Malick is able to exploit the best things about movies, mainly the temporal and time dilations that can only exist in our own minds, dreams and imaginations. Watching his movies is hypnotizing.
The Tree of life's plot focuses on a family in a small Texas town during what is presumably the 1950's. We watch the family grow through a series of montage covering the birth and childhood of three boys. Brad Pitt plays the hard-lined patriarch who's parenting style of tough love starkly clashes with the boys more soft-hearted, nurturing mother. There is very little of a traditional plot structure throughout the movie, more a series of vignettes that run the gamut of the emotions/confusions of both child and parenthood.
The film primarily focuses on the eldest son of the family, who we view periodically in the 'present day' played by Sean Penn, on what is assumed to be an anniversary of his brother's death. His brother was presumably killed in action during Vietnam, but we never known for sure. The film is essentially a rumination on the thoughts, and emotions that rise to the surface on a painful anniversary.
About 20 minutes into the movie, the story goes back to the beginning...the beginning of time. The audience watches the formation of the universe in a beautifully rendered sequence that serves as orientation for the remainder of the film. Carl Sagan put it simply by stating we are all made of stars, in other words the violent forces that created the universe, so too created us. The scene acts as slap in the face to your sense of self, a literal 'you are here' for our wandering, distracted lives. Our very existence out of nothingness is beyond comprehension, and the pairing of these images with the growing family as it's microcosm is haunting, yet somehow perfect.
We are all children, born of 2 distinctly different persons, yet we are a blend of both genetics/science/nature, and life experiences/moments/nurture. The film examines how we find our own identities from those of our parents, and further how we deal with the dualities that surround our lives.
The ending scenes, without describing them, are so unflinchingly emotional, that the imagery will no doubt move you in some form or another, regardless of any religious beliefs.
Malick's tried and true style is here in all of it's brilliance. He is short on the dialogue, and large on sweeping imagery. His style can only be described as potently sublime. That being said, I understand people's 'annoyance' with his style. If in the hands of a lesser director the 'whispering' of dialogue, and wandering focus could easily come across as amateur and pretentious. It's also telling, when his style is used by commercials to sell jeans; (Levi's 'go fourth' campaign) that it's perhaps getting a bit worn out. However, like I said I would be more critical in the hands of a lesser director, but Malick is able to hit all the right notes with his technique.
He's able to blend the components of neorealism with the control and grace tantamount to a director like Scorsese. Malick's poetic style wanders through the lives of the film's inhabitants, through the devastation of death, the pondering of God, the day to day moments that make up our lives. He seeks to show the holy in the mundane. The aesthetic of Malick is something that will be written and talked about for years and years to come, by people much more apt than myself, but for what it's worth The Tree of Life is to be included in discussions of Malick's best work, and certainly one of the best films in recent years.