The Tree of Life


Written by Betty Wood
04 Monday 04th July 2011

Tree of Life is an exploration of some of the most burning questions about the meaning of life, as seen through the eyes of Jack O'Brien, the eldest of three boys in an average Texan family in the 1950s. And that's it. That's as simple as I can make the plot for you, because aside from that opening sentence, there's absolutely nothing conventional about a film that does its best to avoid definition and narrative-dissection.

The title rolls and a postman arrives at the O'Brien’s front door. It’s the early 1970s – the Vietnam War is being waged on the other side of the world – and with a sense of foreboding, he hands a letter to Mrs O'Brien (Jessica Chastain) before hurrying away. She strides through the empty house into the conservatory, opening it. The letter is from the United States Army, informing her that her son has been killed. Uncomfortable seconds pass in silence as her eyelids flicker and her mind adjusts to the news. She crumples to the floor in grief as we are thrown to the airport traffic control office where Mr O'Brien (Brad Pitt) answers the telephone to hear the news of his son's death over the screaming of jet engines. He vomits, stands, and then vomits again. The realism of the action strikes home with sickening authenticity.

Abandoning linear chronology, the film jumps to the present day where Jack O'Brien (Sean Penn) wakes from his sleep. Disorientated, we follow him through a sketch of his current situation and the central crux of the film; he's a lost soul, distracted and disengaged from modern life, still absorbed by the questions that fill his mind about the death of his brother decades before. Time becomes a fluid concept as we move back and forth through Jack's life and beyond in an attempt to hold onto meaning through feeling, witnessing snatches of incomplete and under-developed memories that present the raw emotion of the event with none of the scope of context. Much is omitted, and many blanks must be filled by the viewer to keep up with the action on the screen.

It's a bewildering experience having none of the pathetic fallacy or immediate context we come to expect from traditional storytelling. Instead what we are given is a kaleidoscopic imprint of a narrative; just as the story comes together in full Technicolor it is moved on, distorted and fractured into something else.

The effect is dizzying - literally. With its heady mix of bright, natural lighting and sweeping camera perspectives it’s easy to get caught up in the motion on screen and feel a little queasy. But the effect is brilliant; the hand-held camera shots and constant switches of angle and focus create a window through which you are able to see the world exactly as the young O’Brien boys. All the while you’re simultaneously tapping into your own childhood memories and (eerily) the emotions that go along with those snapshots. This is a cinematic experience like none I've had before; the whole film pricked at my own sense of history as the boys encountered the feelings of shame, excitement, guilt, boredom and rage.

These human emotions form the pockets through which the film's central theme is thrown up; through these moments of love, grief, violence and tenderness the family's story is married to the macrocosm of the universe from the moment of creation with the Big Bang. Tenderness, the apparently pre-human feeling is shown through the era of the dinosaurs and long beyond to the death of the sun and of the universe. And like the moments of tension in the film - handled with subtlety and brilliantly executed by Pitt, Chastain and newcomer Hunter McCracken - these natural history sequences are organic and superbly executed.

These sequences - the longest of which is ten minutes or so - are used by Malick to connect the macrocosm to the small and human, to bridge the gaps in time and plot and provide an overarching structure for a film that is otherwise a fractured reflection. And whilst these tableaus are undoubtedly aesthetically beautiful, they succeed more in creating a distance between the two separate narrative strands than reinforcing a parallel. Even the narrative voice-overs fail to pull the fragments together as intended. Instead, you’re left watching two very separate films that jar against each other rather than complement.

Overall, the film is an ‘experience’ rather than something to sit and passively ‘watch’. At points uncomfortable, dizzying and touchingly funny, it is simultaneously bewildering, confusing and alienating for the audience. More a work of art - visual poetry - than a standard box-office release, the film will polarise its audience with some hailing it as a masterpiece whilst others will be left scratching their heads.

The Tree of Life is in Cinemas across the UK from 8 July 2011. Check your local theatre for screening times.

Don't Panic attempt to credit photographers and content owners wherever possible, however due to the sheer size and nature of the internet this is sometimes impractical or impossible. If you see any images on our site which you believe belong to yourself or another and we have incorrectly used it please let us know at and we will respond asap.


  • Guest: zzeresque
    Sun 21 - Aug - 2011, 02:04
    "At points uncomfortable, dizzying and touchingly funny, it is simultaneously bewildering, confusing and alienating for the audience" If you want to try to make some sense of it, try to understand it as more than an ‘experience’, see this: