The Tree of Life by Terrence Malick

(It is impossible to review The Tree of Life without writing about what it is about, hence: Spoiler Alert for this post.)

“The Tree of Life” is the fifth feature film in the forty-year career of the reclusive director Terrence Malick. It received mixed reactions at the Cannes Film Festival in May this year. There were boos and applause. That it finally won the top prize at the festival, the prestigious Palme d’Or, indicates which side was gratified. But, it is a film that needs to be experienced personally before one takes side, and maybe seeing it more than once.

Watching the film is an experience in itself. It starts off with this quote from Job 38: 4 and 7:

Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? When the morning stars sang together
 and all the sons of God shouted for joy?

With this premise, the film pours forth mysterious yet majestic visual sequences depicting the cosmos, our molten earth, prehistoric era where dinosaurs roam, early life forms, the roaring ocean, blood streams, fetal heartbeats. The first part.

Upon such visuals we hear a voice over:

There are two ways through life — the way of nature and the way of grace. You have to choose which one you’ll follow. Grace doesn’t try to please itself. Accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked. Accepts insults and injuries. Nature only wants to please itself. Get others to please it too. Likes to lord it over them. To have its own way…

From the macro scale of the universe we now focus on the micro, something with which we can identify, a family. We see it from the point of view of Jack O’Brien (Sean Penn). An architect now, Jack is haunted by memories of his past, in particular, the death of his younger brother at age 19. We see scenes of his parents receiving the bad news. We hear his yearning for the people he loves through his whisper in voice over: ”Brother, mother.” We are then privy to Jack’s childhood days in 1950’s Texas.

From the O’Brien family we see how grace and human nature play out. Jack’s childhood in Waco, Texas, begins in innocence. With a capable father (Brad Pitt) and an almost angelic mother (Jessica Chastain) who is loving, nurturing, grace manifest, young Jack’s (Hunter McCracken) early days are blissful. Two younger brothers later, the siblings form a close bond. But as the boys grow older, the father becomes stern and strict, callous with his sons, demanding total obedience, expecting love where the seeds of fear are sown. From this character, we see human nature manifest in its destructive, self-seeking mode.

Other incidents further shatter the once blissful young life. Jack goes to town with his mother and brothers, he sees a crippled man make his way awkwardly across the street. He also witnesses the unlawful being arrested. While at the swimming pool, he watches a boy drowned despite frantic rescue. We hear young Jack’s whisper in voice over: “Was he bad? Where were you? You let a boy die.” The problem of pain, suffering, and evil begin to churn in his mind. Direct questions to God, not unlike Job.

Watching his father’s harsh handling of his sons, young Jack slowly discovers that he himself too has the latent capacity to not just think, but to commit wrongs, “I do what I hate.” In a moving scene, after he has hurt his little brother, Jack becomes remorseful and asks for forgiveness. We see the power of love at work. We also see his innocence slowly taken over by conflicts in his heart, love and hate, good and evil… grace and nature.  The second part.

Jack’s father loses his job and the family has to leave town. The uprooting is the most painful the boys have experienced. Everything is lost, it seems, friends, the house, the neighborhood, memories, … But among the loss, we hear the graceful voice of Jack’s mother: “The only way to be happy is to love. Unless you love, your life will flash by… Do good, wonder, hope.” Yet poignantly, she experiences the most devastating blow later, the death of her own son. We hear her heartbreaking whisper in voice over: “Where were you? Did you know?” Again, reiterating the questions that were on Job’s mind.

But ultimately light takes over darkness. We are assured that all is not lost. We hear Jack’s yearning whisper, like a prayer: “Keep us, guide us, to the end of time.” In the eternal scheme of things, shown by the display of the magnificent cosmic visuals, we see all members of the O’Brien family reunite and bathed in a warm bright light. Jack once again embraces the ones he loves, his mother and his brothers. He also stands shoulder to shoulder with the one who has inflicted in him the mixed emotions of pain, anger and love, his father, now reconciled under the brilliant light.  The third part.

Yes, we have the big names. Sean Penn as adult Jack appears only sporadically. Brad Pitt nails his role as the stern and difficult father. The relatively new film actor Jessica Chastain is grace embodied. In an interview she recalls that director Terrence Malick had asked her to watch a lot of Lauren Bacall movies to prepare for her role. But the most impressive of all is Hunter McCracken playing young Jack. The casting is brilliant here. His mesmerizing portrayal of a conflicting boy incubating the later character of a tormented adult Penn is deeply moving, a reflection too of Malick’s sensitive direction. As with his other films, cinematography is superb. You’ll have plenty of time to savour the long sections of cosmic and natural wonders.

“The Tree of Life” is for the patient viewer. It is a slow movie, and rightly so. You have to take the two hours and eighteen minutes as a respite from your busy schedule, and experience the film as a quiet meditation on life, family, God, and relationship with Him. It is also a portrait of love, faith, doubts, and promise. It poses questions in whispers, and answers with majestic visuals in silence, and at times, in engulfing themes of torrential music. Smetana’s “The Moldau” still flows through my mind at 4:30 a.m.

Boos or applause, what does it matter? To quote Bresson: “All is grace.”

~ ~ ~ ~ Ripples



CLICK HERE to read my post on another Malick film, Days of Heaven (1978), which won an Oscar for Best Cinematography.

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If she’s not birding by the Pond, Arti’s likely watching a movie, reading, or writing a review. Creator of Ripple Effects, bylines in Asian American Press, Vague Visages, Curator Magazine.

26 thoughts on “The Tree of Life by Terrence Malick”

  1. Looks interesting & thought-provoking, with quite the cast! Thanks for your review, Arti. 🙂


    Hey… thanks for stopping by and leaving your comment. Yes, it’s thought-provoking indeed, and great cinematography.



  2. I’m always moaning about modern cinema being too fast for my taste, so you’d think this one would suit me. I’m not sure I would handle the religious dimension of the film well, but I do admire the director for taking it on. I love courage in art however it’s manifest.


    1. litlove,

      Good that you mention religion. I think one of the thematic elements of the film is to contrast religion in its formality, which the father adheres to, and grace, which the mother lives and manifests.

      You’re right too about courage. It certainly takes a contrarian to make a film with such content and implications in our world today…. (hence, the boos?) Hope you’ll have a chance to catch it in the theatre.


      p.s. Just watched this short clip, makes me think of how similar the last section of the movie is to this real life account.


    2. Lovely review Arti of a difficult film to write about. Litlove, one of the reasons I haven’t reviewed it (I occasionally review the films I see) is because of the religious dimension which I guess I found a little simplistic but as Arti says it is really about a lot more than that and, to some degree, you can “read” the religious dimension the way you want.

      It is a film that requires concentration. I would say half of those whom I know saw it really couldn’t quite work out what was going on eg which brother had died but some of those I know found it too slow and didn’t concentrate well! If you watch it carefully it is full of wonderful detail. And, the music is beautiful.


  3. The New York Review of Books has a good review of this film too. I will have to keep my eye out for when it makes it to Netflix and find a quiet evening to watch it.


    Seeing it in the theatre definitely will bring a more gratifying experience than watching it on the TV monitor. The cosmic and natural wonders speak louder on the big screen. A quiet evening is exactly right.



  4. I really loved this movie. I think in the wrong mood, I would have gotten impatient, but as it was, I was ready to take it all in, even the slow-moving cosmic scenes, as you describe them. You do a good job discussing this rather hard to describe film! I loved the mood it captured best — contemplative and questioning, not so much about answers, but about exploration.


    I’m glad to hear that you’ve enjoyed the film. You’re certainly right to point out about being in the right mood for the film. If one seeks fast pacing and an eventful linear storyline, then one would bound to be disappointed. I’ve watched it twice. The first time I was with somebody; the second time by myself. I found that I was more patient and could appreciate it in a deeper way when I was alone… also, that’s when I was more free to take notes during the film.



  5. despite the spoiler warning, I had to read this in entirety. I’ve heard some smatterings of whispers of things – not voice overs, but soft stringy statements which have made me curious.
    So, I hope to see the movie though I suspect it will escape the theatre before we have a chance to seek solace there in the cool and watch an excellent film.
    A wonderful entry and I am content to know all this much about the film, especially if we don’t get to see this one soon.


    Do click and view the trailer at the end of this post. It’s this excellent trailer that first captured my attention to this movie. In it, you’ll hear what the voice over and the whispers are like. Hope you’ll have the chance to see it in the theatre.



  6. I have not read your review yet, Arti. I will wait until I’ve seen it, which will hopefully be this week or next. I am strict about not wanting to know anything about a movie before seeing it, aside from the trailer.

    I look forward to reading this then. Thank you for the lovely things you have told me about the film at my place, which have made me want to see it even more. And don’t worry, they did not spoil anything for me!

    Take your time, Ruth… I’m patient. Anyone watching Malick’s films and appreciate them has to have patience. 😉



  7. Hello,

    First, thanks for visiting while I have been MIA! I’m catching up.

    This was a film I hadn’t planned to see, but after reading this, I am giving it much more weight. 4 ripples is a good sign!


    This is a film for quiet contemplation and requires patience and time… like sitting in a gallery and mulling over a work of art. I think you’ll enjoy it.



  8. I haven’t seen the film, but I did read your exquisite review–and watched the trailer. My only question is about the separation of “nature” and “grace” as I have always considered them necessary to one another (probably I’ve a wrong definition somewhere). The trials of Job….hmmm…

    Yes, I will watch this movie. Someday. Alone.
    Thank you, Arti, for once again, expanding my horizons.


    Thanks for stopping by. I’m glad you’ve brought up the query about the notion of ‘nature’ here. I had that question in my mind at first then later grasped it to mean something different from the ‘nature’ we so adore such as the beauty of creation. … Here in the context of contrasting ‘nature’ with ‘grace, ‘nature’ refers to the inherent ‘human nature’ which, in its raw and unchecked state, tends to swing towards self-gratification and depravity. A stark contrast to the pure and giving quality of ‘grace’.

    Watching it alone is the best way to appreciate the film… that’s what I did when I went back to see it the second time.



  9. I really was rather put off by the voiceover suggestion that grace is a way that we can chose to follow. You review softened my response somewhat, by making references to, for example, “manifestations of grace”. I’d want to see the movie itself before saying more – just now, I’m questioning whether Malick’s view of grace is justified. (Oh, my gosh! I really didn’t reach for that one!)

    It’s not possible, of course, but I’d love to know who was booing and who was cheering at the screening. It’s fun to ponder whether the boos and cheers might have divided along the lines of the grace/nature division!


    1. Linda,

      Of course, grace is bestowed upon us and not our choosing… But I think here it refers to our choice of living according to the way of grace to live selflessly and to overcome evil with love, or to live under the rule of our inherently self-seeking, fallen human nature.

      I’ve come across two insightful reviews here and here from two different perspectives, if you like to explore further.

      I urge you to experience this extraordinary film if you have the chance to do so… I’ll be curious to know your feedback after seeing it. 😉



  10. Smetana’s “The Moldau” was truly an inspired selection by Malick and the composer Desplat (I read he had as much input as Malick on the musical choices beyond his own magnificent score). All of the classical pieces were great – I wish they could release a soundtrack. The great music is a Malick hallmark.


    Welcome! Yes, I’ve enjoyed Alexandre Desplat’s compositions in his previous works, most recently being The King’s Speech. And Smetana’s “The Moldau” is one of my all time favorite classical pieces. I was first drawn to The Tree of Life because of this music in the exceptionally well-produced trailer. Yes, I look forward to the soundtrack of the film in the near future. BTW, have you heard of a 6 hr. director’s cut Malick is preparing? What do you think of that?



  11. I stopped by your site just when I was searching the right comments about The Tree of Life after watching this movie on Aug. 12. It’s just started being released in Japan. Unfortunately, I could not find an appropriate person who talked and wrote his/her own note about it, and sharing with my thought. At last, I found you! In Japan, nobody talked about it from the sight of Christianity that it is streaming from the Founding Fathers in US. Mostly, Japanese press tried to catch it as family problem only. So, I feel that something is missing… we should consider more deeply not only about family but also the root of human being, the relationship between God and I. Clearly, you wrote about every elements hiding behind this movie. Thank you so much, my gloomy feeling has gone away. Instead, the blue sky with sunshine comes into my heart.


    1. Miwa,

      Welcome! And thank you for your thoughtful comment and kind words. It’s interesting how people in different societies react to this film. Thanks for letting me know about the response of the Japanese press.

      The lengthy sequences of cosmic wonders, the natural beauty of our world, and finally, the miraculous birth of a newborn baby are too obvious to ignore in this film. One cannot just brush them aside. The O’Brien family in the middle part is placed in perspective of all this cosmic frame of reference. That we human beings would be entangled by inner conflicts of good and evil, and would care to search for answers to existential questions are themselves evidences that we’re meaning-driven, deeper beings with a spiritual faculty. Malick is bold indeed to instill such elements into his work in this age of secularism. I applaud his ability to express spirituality with the cinematic medium in a most aesthetic way.

      Once again, thank you for visiting and leaving your heartfelt comment.


      1. Oh I must add here, if you don’t mind Arti, that I agree it is wonderful to hear from you Miwa how the film has been received in Japan. This is the sort of film in which our cultural frame of reference is very likely to strongly impact how we see the film. How did the Japanese viewers explain all the cosmic and nature images? The beach at the end? Did they see anything spiritual in it?


      2. Hello, Arti-san and whisperinggums-san(‘san’ means prefix like Mr., Mrs., Mis. in Japanese),

        Sorry for my late reply. After releasing this movie in Japan, a week has passed. I saw a lot of negative comments from Japanese filmgoers through Yahoo! Cinema in Japan, You may see the customer satisfaction rating for it, 2.43 of 5.00! Words to be imaged from this movie are “strange” as 29.9%, “intellectual” as 26.7%, “sad” as 20%, “hopeless” as 15%, “fantasy” as 9.5%, “lament” as 8.9%, “spectacle” as 8.7%, “weird” as 7.6%, “touching” as 6.7%, and “romantic” as 4.6%. Also, many Japanese people in this survey said “Please repay!”. Even press people commented meaningless dressed-up words to praise Mr. Malick. Nobody pointed out the truth in it, unfortunately.

        How’re you feeling about these reactions in front of you? I’m dissapointed. I’m a Christian that accounts for only 1% in Japan, so I think this movie is full of God’s love and asks how I face to Him personally and also family relations. I recommend seeing this movie to my Christian friends, but I can not do to other friends (non-Christian). It’s too sad for me….sigh.


  12. I have attempted to attract friends to this movie, and succeeded once only— with me—and once a friend in nyc, who took his mother and her friend. the three times I have seen it, there were always walkouts, at about the half-way point.
    this movie is divine, and though its interesting to hear of complaints, i always think the complaints are coming from a very warped sensibility, or a barren one.
    a six-hour cut would be just fine with me. the actress Fiona Shaw, whose role was reduced to a few minutes in the cutting process, though she had worked months—living in the house next to Brad Pitts, in which he lived also—-had lovely things to say about the movie, which she finds to be a work of art also–so, i would like to see some more of her performance in a longer cut.
    i really can’t get enough of this movie—-which i will treasure always.
    i also bought blu-rays of his past movies—though not watched them yet. Days of Heaven is the only one that i had seen, when first released.


    1. David,

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment.

      This is the kind of movie that you either love it or hate it, I feel. Although I must say, if one has some background of what it’s about and goes to see it with some preparation, with an open mind and no time constraints, a more positive response would likely ensue. I have seen it twice, the second time by myself, and found I could focus much better and appreciate deeper when I was alone. I admire what Malick has done, and I’m sure the editing must be a hard job to do, if you had so much film to start with. I read that 300 plus miles of footage were shot. What would you discard and what would you save? So, the 6 hr. director’s cut may be the best way to reap most from this artful production. I sure would like to see more of the O’Brien family saga. At present it’s more like we’re looking into vignettes only.

      I’ve yet to see Badlands, but have seen all of Malick’s other three feature films. The New World is an interesting take on the Pocahontas story which I’d really enjoyed. The Thin Red Line is sensitive and very well done as a war genre film. I’ve posted my review of Days of Heaven. I feel much closer to that film than the others because it was shot here in Southern Alberta… fascinating cinematography. You’re welcome to share with us your take on that post. Again, thanks for stopping by and leaving your comment!


  13. Miwa, That’s lovely you got back to us. It must be hard being in such a minority in your country. I think you could recommend non-Christians see it. I think the film can be looked at it in a wider spiritual sense than simply Christian. What do you think?


  14. Miwa,

    Thank you for letting us know how the film is received in Japan. I’ve followed your link to the Japanese Yahoo site and the info there is most interesting. No, I don’t read Japanese, but can read some Kanji though. Anyway, I got Google to do the page translation, which only partially tells me what the commenters have said. I can feel a general sense of indignation as you mentioned. It makes a relevant piece of cross-cultural study. 🙂

    I agree with whisperinggums that you can recommend the movie to your non-Christian friends, for the questions it asks are universal across cultures. I’ve appreciated a statement made by the blogger David from The Schleicher Spin. In his review of The Tree of Life (from a non-Christian perspective), he makes the point that “the divergent interpretations are not only good and healthy, but a sign of the film’s brilliance.”

    Again, thanks so much for coming back and sharing with us.


    1. Arit-san and Whisperinggums-san,
      As you said, I try to do it even to my non-Christian friends. Thanks for your encouragement.

      Whisperiggums-san, I agree with you the person, who deeply and carefully hears His Voice and always tries to learn the Bible as God’s Words even though he/she can not always succeed to do it, may understand better than simply Christian because the Holy Spirit can help him/her to do it. Am I right?



  15. Well, Arti, I finally saw this film last night. I have to say that I didn’t love it or hate it! Your review is excellent!

    I could not quite catch what was said in the voice over about grace and nature. Not knowing that, I wondered if the strict father and mother of grace represented two ways of seeing God.

    Maybe I should see it again to get a better feel for what went on. I went into it without knowing much (I knew there wasn’t much of a plot), so my expectations were not for anything in particular. I thought the acting was superb, especially the boy who played Jack, as you said.


    Yes, The Tree of Life definitely deserves multiple viewings. BTW, the DVD/BluRay version is out… good time to get them as Christmas gifts. I’ve included some excerpts of the V.O. in my post, including the two ways of life: nature and grace. Here, I think the film refers nature as human nature, the raw, unruly, self-seeking tendency of the ‘flesh’… and I agree with you that the father and the mother represent these two ways of seeing things, life, and God. Some of the other V.O. are exasperations of a soul crying out when tragedy strikes, when bad things happen. Overall, I think it’s a very soulful/spiritual film.

    Thanks for coming back and sharing your afterthoughts.



  16. Just reaching out to say I saw the film on HBO (I think) last Saturday. The large screen would have been better, I know, but by the time I’d decided to see it… it was not to be found. Locally.

    What I wish to share is how this film made me feel, as moving images when from macro to micro: first, safe and secure before scenes of chaos, of the cosmos being born so majestically … and edgy and stressed before scenes of the O’Brien family, especially as son Jack circled around the jack, willing it to slip and crush his father working beneath the car.

    Yesterday, I read a review of the Mad Men season finale written by Times TV critic, Jame Poniewozik. He writes,

    “There’s a reason you make art… rather than write an essay. Creative works exist to express something that can’t be expressed literally….They exist so that the audience can feel or understand something that can’t entirely be conveyed with rational explanation.”

    Funny thing: I’m not sure whether I “liked” the film or not — a few times, during those O’Brien vignettes, I wanted to walk away. I wished to push back the plate, to separate myself from the story being served to me. But maybe liking or not liking isn’t the point. Because the way I feel, after viewing the film, is …. Oh, I don’t know exactly what I feel… maybe grateful… that I, as small as I am, play a bit part in this wonderful world of our’s.

    One thing for sure: I would never have seen this movie but for you and your review. And on this score, I’m grateful again.


    1. Janell,

      Totally agree… that’s why I’m a film lover. It’s a totally different vehicle, images, albeit I’m a lover of words too. One can have two loves, or more, I think. 😉 Your quote reminds me of Edward Hopper’s: ‘If you could say it in words, there would be no reason to paint.’

      With The Tree of Life, I think one would get a totally different experience when watching it on the big screen in a pitch dark theatre. I could actually use the word which now has become quite a cliché: awesome.

      Again, comments like yours are what make blogging so gratifying. One may not necessarily agree with me, but the fact that one cares to read my posts and respond to them AND come back to share one’s views after watching a film I’d reviewed. Thank you Janell for your candid sharing. You know, if you have the chance to watch it again hopefully in a cinema, you could well have a different experience.


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