Memory and Magic in Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life

Like an Andrew Wyeth painting come to life, Malick's obsession with open doors and windows conjures myth and memories.
Nature is a cruel and unforgiving mistress.
Over time, man has conjured God to tame her and give reason and order to the random chaos.
In present day, a man named Jack (Sean Penn) wanders listlessly through a cold, sterile metropolis where success is measured by wealth and excess.  On the anniversary of his brother’s death, a call to his father triggers an ocean of memories to come rushing over him.  Distracted, he daydreams and wonders about the meaning of life and why his brother had to be taken from him.  Was it because of the bad things he did as a child?  Was it a failure on the part of his parents?  Is it because his God is a mysterious and unknowable power that snuffs out life as easily as it gives it away?  Is this why he has become so misguided and empty today?  Jack imagines his childhood bookended by the beginning and end of time, where writer/director Terrence Malick’s meta-narrative provides a linear mirror image to Weerasethakul’s cosmic cycling from Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives.  Memories and dreams fuel both films, but The Tree of Life cuts through time like a knife.
Chastain stands tall in Malick's vision.
Following a dream detailing the origins of life from the Big Bang to Evolution — a nearly endless and blissful FX sequence that rivals Kubrick’s ending to 2001: A Space Odyssey with its WTFWOW! factor — Malick whisks Jack and his audience back to that summer in Texas in the 1950’s, the last summer Jack and his family spent in the house where he and his brothers grew up before having to move when their father lost his job.
The O’Brien family is built on archetypes.  Father (Brad Pitt) is intermittently harsh and affectionate, a man who struggles with instilling in his children skills he himself failed to learn.  He dreams of being his own boss – of inventing – and of music.  Mother (Jessica Chastain) is full of grace and wisdom, loving and ever-present, but naive to her husband’s domineering ways and her children’s growing resentment.  She loves, she dances, she protects butterflies from their stalking pet cat and then later lets the cat snuggle on her lap on the front porch in twilight.  The eldest son, Jack (Hunter McCracken) is on the cusp of rebellion and finds faults in both his parents.  The middle son (Laramie Eppler) is more sensitive and artistic.  The youngest son (Tye Sheridan) is innocent and longs for protection and companionship. 
The performances are all astounding, with Malick’s unique filming techniques giving us the impression that we are like ghosts spying on this family’s most intimate moments leaving us with feelings of joy and melancholy as they struggle through their dysfunctions and try to find beauty and meaning in their lives and relationships.  His camera is constantly moving in clean swooping motions and straight lines, looking up, looking under, looking over and bringing along with it heavenly choirs, perfectly chosen classical music, philosophical voice-overs, and sparse dialogue that stabs us in the heart with its simplicity and power. 
All of Malick’s signature imagery is here: water both still and flowing, sunlight filtered through trees, wind blowing up and through open windows and doors, and people slowly walking to and from us.  Emmanuel Lubezki, who also was the cinematographer on Malick’s The New World, outdoes himself here with his perfectly lit and framed compositions that sear into our minds as if they were our own images, our own hopes and dreams and memories.  And throughout the film…there’s the tree, like Kubrick’s black monolith, like Dreyer’s face of Joan of Arc.
Will Malick ever tire of the magic created when light is filtered through trees?
The elder present day Jack still can’t cope with the loss of his brother (the middle child), who died at age 19, presumably while serving in the military.  In his dreams and memories he seeks answers and forgiveness.  Moments, raw in their power and beauty and innocence, are recalled.  Endless summer days riding bikes and playing ball with the neighborhood kids.  Walking the streets after dinner and hearing a neighbor’s heated argument filter through open windows into the night.  Letting his little brother cry on his shoulder while hiding out in the tall grass, both overwhelmed at the thought of having to leave their home.  Jack remembers, too, those first hateful thoughts, the growing resentment, and those first actions that brought about shame and admonishment from his parents.  There’s sibling jealousies and bitterness growing.  There’s a new knowledge of death and a desire to survive suffering by causing it. 
We never really know exactly why Jack still longs for this forgiveness from his brother.  It’s as if the feeling is not stemming from one single moment, but instead from the totality of his memories.  We witness one such moment from that fateful summer where he hurts his brother, and then successfully seeks and receives his forgiveness.  We witness, too, a tender moment where his father confesses to him that maybe he was wrong, and that all he wants for his son is a better life.  It’s what the adult Jack desires, but who knows what he might have said to his brother before he went away to war?  Who knows what fight they may have had when they last saw each other?  And who knows if he will speak and hear the right words when his parents pass from this world? 
So still Jack wonders why.  It’s in our nature to wonder why.  It’s in our nature to be as cruel as we can be kind, to hate as much as we love.  As Jack dreams in the film’s closing moments of a place where all the living and dead are reunited, we realize it is only in our dreams and memories where peace can be found.  Earlier in the film his mother declares of the sky, “That’s where God lives.”  But their God is no more in the sky than he is in those closing moments.  The only things living there are each other, and our memories, and our dreams, and what little time gives us as it all comes closing to an end.
A Malick film is nothing without the reactions from those who experience it.  Check out the best from the blogosphere regarding The Tree of Life:
  • Sam Juliano’s magisterial post at Wonders in the Dark stands tall.
  • Jason Marshall’s towering and perceptive piece exists at Movies over Matter.
  • Someone was bound to finally say it, and over at Condemned Movies there is no shyness in declaring the film the greatest ever made.
  • Over at Rachael Reviews Movies, the debate surrounding the film and the lofty expectations placed on it are beautifully wrestled, as well as how long it might be before anyone can truly define what the film means.
  • Check out David Micevic’s ruminations on Malick and the nature of nature at Boxing Uwe Boll.
  • Old stalwart Roger Ebert equates the film to a prayer at The Chicago Sun Times.
  • Steven Rea is brutally honest in his assessment over at The Philadelphia Inquirer.
  • Dianne Glave over at Rooted in the Earth taps into the Biblical underpinnings while comparing the film to a series of paintings in motion.
  • Kevin Olson wonderfully captures the magic and confusion of the intial reaction.
  • At Cahiers d’Illusion, the Heidegger connections are laid out point by point in a most compelling essay.
  • Prakash Jashnani at Talking Talkies sees threads from East to West in this film of multitudes.
  • Surely you won’t mind Jake Cole fearlessly getting personal and comparing the film to music at Not Just Movies.
  • For those wondering about all of the great music in the film, Opera Chic has a comprehensive listing of every classical piece used.



  1. Malick, like no other director today, composes films that demand to be watched over and over. In subsequent viewings, his films only grow richer and challenge our perceptions. Anyone who comes across my review for his Days of Heaven on the IMDB will see just how flippant I was after first viewing it. That film astounds me now.

    With that in mind, I invite others to rank his filmography.

    The New World – 10/10 (viewed at least six times)
    Days of Heaven – 9.5/10 (viewed three times)
    Badlands – 8.5/10 (viewed three times)
    The Thin Red Line – 8/10 (viewed twice)

    I reserve a final rating on The Tree of Life until I see it at least once more. My first impression is that it might be a 10/10.

  2. What a beautifully observed review, David. I could scarcely keep track of all the details you mention here while I was watching the film because I was so overwhelmed by the BIGNESS of it all. No doubt that Terrence Malick is one of cinema’s greatest living legends–it’s a shame more people don’t view his work.

    And thank you for the free publicity! I’m very flattered.

    Amen to that – more people need Malick. Thanks for stopping by – I really enjoyed your thoughts on the film. –DHS

  3. I will see it on Tuesday. I’m looking forward to the wonderment and perhaps unanswered questions the film will evoke.

    Dianne – I can’t wait to read your take! I know you will bring something very special to the debate. –DHS

  4. Beautiful review. Your opening lines probably sum up the essence of the movie, and reveal a great truth about life itself: “Over time, man has conjured God to tame her and give reason and order to the random chaos.”

    I have no idea when this masterpiece will release in India, but when it does, I’ll definitely wake up from my slumber and review it. I am already anxious to watch it after having read your review. Again, one of your best insightful reviews till date.

    Prakash – I’ve always meant to ask you, where in India do you live? The stereotypical American in me imagines Mumbai. This is surely a film worthy waking up for. Thanks again for the kind words. –DHS

    • Mumbai is on the West coast and I live on the East coast in south India– Chennai (or Madras as it was formerly known). Thanks for asking, because now you can imagine me as a movie-buff from Southern India rather than from Mumbai (which is the film capital of India: Bollywood).

      We have India-wide releases, so if a movie releases in Mumbai, it releases in Chennai as well. Unfortunately, when it comes to intelligent/intellectual Hollywood and World Cinema, they mostly release very late or sometimes don’t release at all in India. They do get screened in some of the Film Festivals (which I hardly get invited to). But we do have all the major blockbusters releasing simultaneously with the Worldwide release. Isn’t that ironic? A Hangover:2 released here 3 weeks back, but no one has even heard of The Tree of Life. Sadly, if not for torrents/bootlegs, I would miss out on many good movies.

      Another interesting coincidence I would like to share with you is this: A few hours before I read your review, I was discussing the topic of “randomness” and how it rules our lives. From the Butterfly Effect to Chaos Theory, I was discussing life-and-death and this entire ‘game’ that nature plays with my uncle. Immediately after that conversation, I happened to read your review and was pleasantly surprised to find your review and the movie itself to be on similar lines. Come to think of it, maybe not a very strange co-incidence; just random, chaotic theory, eh? 🙂

      Prakash – ah, Chennai! I’m glad I finally asked. That IS an interesting coincidence. Seems like there was a similar coincidence, if I recall correctly, regarding my review for Uncle Boonmee. I tend to think it might be more a “great minds think alike” or ponder the same things kind of deal…meaning, viewers like you and I and the great filmmakers we love to watch. –DHS

      • Yep. That’s right, Uncle Boonmee… was the other movie which we happened to share a similar ‘coincidence’. And, going by your review, Unlce Boonmee also happens to be a movie on similar lines with The Tree of Life. So I can see a lot of logic when you say that like minded people happen to think about the same things. I hope we continue to share this ‘unsaid’ bond for cinema and life in general.

  5. Really looking forward to this. I remeber when it was supposed to be released here before Cannes (like that was gonna happen), but I can’t seem to find any information now.

    Darren – are you in the States? It should go nationwide July 8th. –DHS

  6. I’m going with three other people and I hope they won’t be irritated when I take notes on my ipod touch. i may have sit by myself because I’m thinking I’ll have to have notes to blog about it in some detail. more to come.

    Dianne – that’s a bold move. I would probably ask you sit way in the back and far away 🙂 Those lights can be distracting. You should just let the movie wash over you and not worry about taking notes. It might alter the cinematic experience. –DHS

  7. David: Thanks so much for mentioning my review there. In fact that was quite a salute to the blogosphere at a time where you were penning your own masterpiece on the film! I hadn’t thought of it, but I do love the comparison point to UNCLE BOONME, and with you salute the extraordinary cinematography of Emmanuel Lubezki. I love the thoughts you pose expressing that the cameraman forges searing images that evoke our ‘thoughts, dreams and memories.”

    And I love this brilliant sensory writing that captures the film’s essence:

    “His camera is constantly moving in clean swooping motions and straight lines, looking up, looking under, looking over and bringing along with it heavenly choirs, perfectly chosen classical music, philosophical voice-overs, and sparse dialogue that stabs us in the heart with its simplicity and power.
    All of Malick’s signature imagery is here: water both still and flowing, sunlight filtered through trees, wind blowing up and through open windows and doors, and people slowly walking to and from us…”

    My own Malick ratings:

    The Tree of Life 10/10
    The New World 10/10
    The Thin Red Line 9.5/10
    Badlands 9/10
    Days of Heaven 8/10

    With another film in the can and an apparent determination to push forward, it’s probably the world will have 9 or 10 Malick films before his career ends. Amazingly prolific turnaround.

    Sam, I was reading an article from around the time of The Thin Red Line that indicated Malick had every intention of being more prolific and did not willingly take that 20 year break. There were at least two or three solid film projects during that time that just couldn’t get off the ground for one reason or another – one of them being a John Merrick biography that would’ve rivaled David Lynch’s! I think he became disillusioned then. Glad he eventually got back on the horse. He’s more Kubrickian in output now. Slow but steady. –DHS

  8. David: I just saw ‘The Tree of Life’ over the weekend and am still trying to process it. I’ve been a detractor of Malick in the past, but ‘Tree of Life’ is above and beyond any Malick I know. For the first time his philosophical themes seem fully integrated into the work and he has at last achieved the transcendent effect. I’ll probably see this a couple more times and your review is perfect.

    Mark S. – yes, multiple views are necessary. I’m planning at least one more trip to the theater at some point. –DHS

  9. Great essay David! I was sure you would agree that it is a masterful film. Like Sam I also liked the comparison to Uncle Boonmee, a connection I hadn’t made despite the Cannes connection. Oh, and thanks for the link to my own essay.

    I think you have mentioned that you are, like me, not exactly a God believer so I was intrigued to see you echo a thought I had while watching the movie: that God is a creation of man to pull some order out of the chaos. This seemed obvious to me, but is that only because we’re atheists? Are we letting our own views color our interpretations? I ask because many religious people have also been enthusiastic about the movie’s celebration of God! Is this a problem with us, with them, or are divergent interpretations good and healthy?

    Jason, I think it’s pretty clear Malick is a man of some faith, and the film is colored through that lens. What I love is that he allows for those multiple interpretations. The film then becomes what the viewer brings to it. You and I saw it one way, while someone of strong faith sees it another way. All of us see some meaning and beauty in it. I think the divergent interpretations are not only good and healthy, but a sign of the film’s brilliance. –DHS

  10. UPDATE: I saw the film for the second time this past weekend. So far, I stand by my initial 10/10 rating. I still contend The New World is Malick’s best film, though this comes close and could still outrank it in a few years after some more views and further digestion.

    Having read many of the religious interpretations between viewings, the whole “surrendering to God” and “resurrection of the dead” themes played in a clearer light.

    Repetitive visual symbolism was more apparent the second time around (i.e. the sunflowers, the light flashes, everything in threes).

    The corollaries to the works of Andrew Wyeth stood out even more (I would love to one day do a painting by filmed frame side-by-side comparison), as did the Faulknerian stream of consciousness. The mind boggles at the idea of Malick ever adapting a work of Faulkner (i.e. As I Lay Dying or The Sound and the Fury…or, in my dream world, a 12hr adaptation of Light in August).

    My favorite images grew in number and now include those pastoral moments during the prologue, the flock of bats or locusts or whatever it was at dusk over the city, the whole shebang that is the creation sequence, the kids crying in the field, the flash of lightning followed by the appearance of the dead child looking back at us, and the dead child walking through the open doorway into the desert.

    I now also contend (and I thought as much on first view but wasn’t 100%) that the whole thing is Sean Penn’s daydream/recollections while going up and down the elevator, which perhaps represented ascending into heaven and then coming back down to earth (or trying to touch heaven and follow missed loved ones there before realizing there is still beauty and life to enjoy on earth).

    Please feel free to share your thoughts after having viewed the film a second or third time.

  11. I’ve enjoyed your insightful review, coming here from “Freshly Pressed”. I particularly appreciate your drawing the connections between The Tree of Life with previous works by Malick and other filmmakers. Your evoking Dreyer’s face of Joan of Arc is a unique thought. That is one powerful film to be alluded to, and I feel Malick deserves to be regarded in that rank. The extensive list of links you’ve provided at the end of your post is also most helpful.

    I’ve seen The Tree of Life twice, the second time taking notes in the dark theatre using pen and notebook 🙂 so I could write my review. As I mull over the quotes and the voice-overs afterwards, I feel the beginning quote of Job 38: 4 & 7 just about lays out Malick’s premise for the film. But of course, I totally appreciate what you said in your reply to a commenter that we each bring our own personal perspective into the interpretation. Thus, a work of art can evoke a myriad of responses. Your statement: “I think the divergent interpretations are not only good and healthy, but a sign of the film’s brilliance.” is insight in itself.

    I’ve seen all of Malick’s films except Badlands which I can’t get hold of. I admit the fondest tie I have is with Days of Heavens due to its amazing cinematography in every shot, and that the film was made right here in my home province of Alberta, Canada. Yes, some of the scenes at the end where Linda was sent to school were shot right here in my city. Too bad I wasn’t around then to be an extra.

    Again, thank you for your review and maintaining such a superb blog.

    Arti – thanks for the stupendous response and kind words! I had no idea Days of Heaven was filmed in Alberta, Canada! Were those the Chicago/non-Texas scenes? It really is a beautiful film, like each frame should be a painting. –DHS

    • David,

      It’s all the Texan scenes, the wheat fields in particular, that were shot here. I rented the Criterion Collection DVD to view this film, with a booklet explaining the selection of the location. Apparently one main reason for choosing an Albertan wheat field over a Texan one was because the wheat were 4 ft. tall here as opposed to only 2 ft. in Texas, making it more cinematic to shoot. You might be interested to read my post on Days of Heaven. The comments following the post are even more interesting, as a commenter from Texas had identified the movie set of the house to be a particular Texan monument.

      Arti – Wow! You learn something new every day. I love how Malick, a Texan, traveled all the way to Alberta for 4ft tall wheat! To be honest, I always thought it was too pretty to really be Texas. I’ll definitely check out your link. Thanks! –DHS

  12. Very nice. This is the best review about the influences of “The Tree of Life” :

    “We never really know exactly why Jack still longs for this forgiveness from his brother.”

    It explains the shot of the bridge and what is R.L. to Malick.

    Wow – that is a very interesting interpretation. I like how it explores the symbolism and references – drawing parallels to shots/themes in other films. I think it’s clear Malick loaded this film with a multitude of “things” and that’s what makes it so rewarding. Not sure if I agree with it all – but very interesting indeed. –DHS

  13. Finally got to see it…and, I didn’t enjoy it. I find it to be quite the polarizing film that pushed me to the side of disdain. Beautiful, but Practically Plotless. You do Malick justice with a great tribute to Tree of Life.

    feel free to check out my review if you wish.

    Have a great weekend.

  14. […] …that is what Malick’s life as an artist has been all about. To wonder…what it’s like to kill for the heck of it (Badlands)…to love when life is like a shaft of wheat blowing in the wind (Days of Heaven)….to wonder what it’s like to kill someone and mean it, to live and love in war (The Thin Red Line)…to wonder what it was like to discover a new land, a new love, a new way of life (The New World)…to wonder about the beginning and end of time and the loss of a loved one (The Tree of Life). […]

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