Ian Berke, realtor and real estate in San Francisco
Ian's Listings
SF listings
About SF
About Ian
Ian's List
Film Reviews
Stone Books
Legal & Privacy

tel 415.921.7300
cell 415.860.2777

DRE #444020

Film Review

The Tree of Life

Few directors have so consistently produced films with such gorgeous cinematography as Terrence Malick. He has only directed five films since 1973: "Days of Heaven", "Badlands", "The Thin Red Line", "The New World", and now "The Tree of Life", all of which he wrote. His stories are usually set in the past, dialogue is sparse, often with the characters' inner thoughts spoken, and his camera tells the story with stunning scenes. His stories often amble, but Malick is as concerned with his characters' inner lives as much as their actions. His films are always well crafted, and all have a visual power that make them unforgettable.

"The Tree of Life"is not a conventional film by any means. It represents the creation of the earth and the life of a person, both from a Biblical viewpoint. The film begins with a quote from the Book of Job: "Where were you when I laid the earth's foundation"? Then murmurs about a brother, and the difference between nature and grace. Nature is hard and grace is from God. It is the 1950's, in Waco, Texas, in an upper middle class neighborhood of Victorian houses with large yards and many trees. A woman gets a telegram, and after reading it is grief stricken. An older woman, presumably her mother, is shown consoling her: "Life goes on. You still have the other two". No explanation of the death, but presumably her son, killed in the Korean War (1951-53). Then the film snaps forward to Sean Penn, as the oldest son, Jack, now an architect in a high rise office, who is tormented by thoughts of his childhood and the loss of his brother at only 19. He imagines himself in a wilderness, without answers. His thoughts whisper "Where are you?" as he cries out to God and his brother.

The film then shifts to a series of dramatic astronomic images of galaxies, gas clouds, nebula, and planets, many familiar from Hubble photographs, accompanied by classical music. Then a series of volcanic shots, and enormous waterfalls. An asteroid, seen from its orbit, plunges into the sea and creates a huge wave. Kelp forests, pulsating jellyfish, and a large school of hammerhead sharks depict the mystery and rise of life. All are breathtakingly beautiful, and strongly reminiscent of Kubrick's "2001". Then digital dinosaurs, more realistic in their depiction and movement than anything in "Jurassic Park", and inserted into real landscapes. One is in a redwood forest, looking cautiously around. Another lies dying on the beach, and another on the rocky shores of a stream, also dying. The dinosaurs evoke pathos, and Malick seems to be saying that with life also comes death.

Then forward to Waco again, as the lovely Jessica Chastain, playing Jack's mother, is pregnant. She is radiant, and looks like the subject of an English Pre-Raphaelite painter, with her pale skin and vivid copper hair. Her film husband, Mr O'Brien, played by Brad Pitt, gives the most accomplished performance of his career. He dominates the film in every sense. There are wonderful scenes showing Mr O'Brien looking in wonder at his baby's tiny foot, then Jack learning to walk, then running and learning to climb, and going to school. These scenes, brief but affecting, lead to Jack as a sullen young teenager, alienated and angry with his father. He is the oldest of his two brothers. His father is loving, but also harsh, and determined to harden his sons. The scenes of the father urging Jack to hit him in the face are stunning. They are afraid of him. Their mother attempts to shield them, and show them the nature of grace, rather than the hardness of nature. Their charming Victorian house and back yard is the setting of much of the film. The three boys play in the yard, roam through the neighborhood, play in wide streets that never seem to have traffic, go to the river, and sometimes do cruel things. They are delighted when their father leaves town on an extended trip, which means that they have their mother's undivided attention. And have mixed feelings when he returns. The Waco section of the film is largely seen through the boys' eyes, including events that deeply affect them, such as a drowning, a prisoner being put into a police car, a cripple crossing the street, and a barbecue with many black children around. These events become part of the apple of knowledge and the shedding of innocence. Their home is an Eden, and leaving it poignant. It is the expulsion from The Garden. The image of their house, seen through the rear window of their car, receding as they drive away, is very moving.

"The Tree of Life" is clearly the most personal of Malick's films, and much of the material comes from his childhood. And like memory, some is vivid, and some fragmentary. It is religious in a broad sense, questioning God. There is a coda to the film, which seemed unnecessary and muddled, that depicts reconciliation and forgiveness. Although beautifully shot, this writer felt that it weakened an otherwise strong film. The soundtrack is an important part of this film, classical music (Smetana, Bach, Berlioz, Mahler), much of it instantly recognizable, and partners perfectly with each scene. The chorales and chants are lovely as well. The performances are all outstanding, even though Jessica Chastain and Sean Penn have very little dialogue. "The Tree of Life" is hugely ambitious, as are all of Malick's films, and mostly succeeds. Like his other films, it is long (138 minutes) but never seems slow. I loved it and intend to see it again. It is powerful stuff, and Malick's images and thoughts stay with you. Definitely see this on the big screen. Playing at the Embarcadero now and also opens at the Kabuki this Friday.

Return to the List of Film Reviews

Home | Ian's Listings | SF listings | Rentals | Architecture | About SF | About Ian |
Ian's List | Legal & Privacy | ian@ianberke.com | © 2009- ianberke.com