Your Guide to Getting the Most Out of The Tree of Life

by | Nov 12th, 2011 | 8:34PM | Filed under: DVD Reviews, Movies

As I said in my review of writer-director Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, I think the film–which stars Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, and Jessica Chastain–is a masterpiece of both filmmaking and soulful philosophical, metaphysical thought.

Read that full Five-Star review here

Reserve The Tree of Life on DVD and Blu-ray at

But The Tree of Life can be a difficult work to “get.” Despite the presence of big-name actors like Pitt and Penn, it’s a pure, experimental art-house film that has little in the way of linear narrative or conventional dialogue.

The following is my attempt to give my personal answers and interpretations to some questions about The Tree of Life.


The Structure of the Film

  • I. Opening: In the late ’60s, Jack O’Brien’s parents (Pitt and Chastain) learn of their second son R.L.’s suicide at age 19
  • II. Present-Day Jack: Some 40 years later, on the anniversary of his brother’s death, adult Jack (Penn) struggles with existential ennui
  • III. The Cosmos and Evolution: The film jumps back to the beginning of time and the Big Bang, the formation of galaxies and the Earth, the rise of life on Earth, and the arrival of the dinosaurs
  • IV. Jack’s Birth, Growth, and Childhood: The section comprising the majority of the film begins with Jack’s birth and follows him (played as a young boy by Hunter McCracken) through infancy, childhood, the arrival of his younger brother R.L. (Laramie Eppler), and their experiences growing up in the ’50s in Waco, Texas, with their mother (Chastian) and domineering father (Pitt)
  • V. The End of Time: After coming back to the present, the film jumps ahead to the cosmic end of the Earth and the Universe
  • VI. Jack on the Beach: Adult Jack moves through a metaphysical and metaphorical desert, making his way to The Sea and a reunion with his loved ones in some sort of Afterlife

1) What’s the Best Way to Watch The Tree of Life?

While the film is a stunningly beautiful journey of visual splendor and aural richness, you don’t have to see it in a theater to appreciate it. But at home you do need to watch it like you’re in a theater. Malick’s films want to draw you into a fugue state—they’re meant to be not just watched but totally immersed into. Multitasking, often pausing and restarting it as you wander off to do other things, or even looking away from the screen is going to keep you from really opening up and sinking into the film.

2) How Autobiographical is It?

Malick grew up in the ‘50s in Waco, Texas. Like the character of R.L. in the film, Malick’s younger brother Larry was a classical guitarist who, under increasing stress over his musical training, broke his own hands in the late ‘60s. Not long after that, Larry committed suicide. It’s that tragedy and its root causes that form the core of and resonate throughout Malick’s film.

3) Why is the Film so Jumbled and Episodic?

Malick is doing more than just examining what his brother’s suicide says about his family, life, and his relationship with God—he’s also constructed The Tree of Life to try and capture a sense of human consciousness and memory, the way we perceive life, the world around us, and our past as well as our larger connections to each other and existence.

As I said in my review, the intent is to use cinema as memory and show memory as cinema. It’s a film that’s not just about being, but aims to capture the experience of being.

To that end, the film roams back and forth, and the childhood scenes that make up the majority of the film are fragmented and sketchy because that’s how we remember things, all mixed together, in bits and pieces, never objectively, not always truthfully.

The filmmaker also prefers narration to the usual interactive dialogue. Most of the character’s express themselves with voice-over questions, usually to spoken directly to God.

4.1) What’s With All the Galaxies?

Malick suggests our existence as both biological and spiritual beings is part of a much larger continuum and connectivity. The film underscores the deep, long-time paradox of human life: That we are both only here alive for a very, very, very brief, and yet we are part of a huge, never-ending stream of time and space, going back—as the film shows—to the birth of the universe and continuing on to its eventual death. We are simultaneously so very small and yet so vast.

4.2) And the Nature Shots?

Malick has always been fascinated in humans’ spiritual connection to nature, especially in films like The Thin Red Line and The New World. Which is why so much of The Tree of Life lingers on nature; trees, rocks, leaves, sunlight, and of course the sea, a long-standing literary and artistic metaphor for Life.

4.3) And the Beach?

In the closing of the film we see adult Jack (Penn) first making his way over rough, rocky, barren desert terrain that’s lonely and inhospitable. However, as we see images of the universe ending, Jack steps through a doorway (openness to and acceptance of a higher grace) and passes on to The Beach, a sort of Heaven-like metaphysical place where he sees all his loved ones, living and dead. It’s where the collective human spirit comes together, and of course it’s by The Sea.

4.4) And the Dinosaurs?

The dinosaurs are one of my favorite elements of The Tree of Life. There’s the plesiosaur on the beach, craning its long neck to gaze back at the fatal wounds on its own side and then out to sea, leaving us to wonder if the creature is aware of its own fast-fading mortality.

One of the most powerful film scenes of recent years is the hunting troodon spotting its prey, a parasaurolophus, among the stones of a shallow creek. The predator first pins its cowering victim with its foot, but then tentatively releases it, testing notions of grace and mercy that go against its biological programming.

5) So, What’s It All About, Alfie?

While The Tree of Life’s plot centers on adult Jack still trying to make sense of his brother’s suicide and how his father’s domineering bitterness factored into it, that’s only a jumping-off point. Malick (who studied philosophy at Oxford) is wrestling with the same questions he’s been probing in his films for over a decade.

Why are we the way we are? Why do we commit selfish acts of violence and cruelty? Why do we hurt one another? How do we reconcile our spiritual side (grace) with our physical side (nature)? How do we connect on a larger scale?

And, as suggested by the questioning voice-overs and mentions of Job in the film’s opening and church scenes, where is God in all this? Does He listen? Does He care? Why does He punish the innocent and let the guilty go unharmed? What does God want from us?

Malick focuses this all down onto Nature versus Grace. “Nature,” expressed by Pitt’s Father character as he teaches his boys to fight, is the evolutionary survival of the fittest: “Good gets taken advantage of… It takes fierce will to make it in this world.”

But working through his own memories, Malick feels “Grace” is the human spirit’s quest to transcend Nature–to give true meaning to our existence we must rise above simple brutal and cruel survival.  This grace and compassion is embodied by Chastain’s Mother character, who says, “The only way to be happy is to love. Unless you love, your life will flash by.”


I know not everyone shares my love of The Tree of Life, but I’d really like to hear in the comments others’ thoughts about the film and its ideas, alternate insights and interpretations, or any other questions any of us have about the film.


Reserve The Tree of Life on DVD and Blu-ray at

There are few films like Tree of Life, but here are others with similar themes and styles from Redbox:


11 Responses to “Your Guide to Getting the Most Out of The Tree of Life”

  1. moviegoer123
    Posted on November 13, 2011 at 2:03 pm

    After reading this, now I should watch The Tree of Life AGAIN if it doesn’t make me sleepy as it well it made me conscious about how we got created five billion years ago.

    I should watch the previous films of Terrence Malick’s and see if I have any connection to those…may be then, I could figure out what’s going on in the Tree of Life.

    I know our planet Earth will end at some point in the next five billion years or so and it may emerge with the Andromeda galaxy. This film has many possiblities about life.

    It’s just very confusing at points that I was supposed to understand those points.

    I’ll give it another chance when I have time.

  2. Locke Peterseim
    Locke Peterseim
    Posted on November 13, 2011 at 2:18 pm

    I think it’s great, Moviegoer123, that you’re trying to tackle films like this at your (younger) age :) They’re definitely complicated, complex works that deal with a lot of deep life questions and issues.

    A few weeks ago I was doing an interview with the actress Judy Greer and she mentioned how when she was a kid her parents showed her films like the original M*A*S*H and she loved them even though she realized later she probably didn’t “get” them at the time. We were talking about how when you’re young you might watch films (or read heavier novels) that you don’t fully get or appreciate the way you might later when you’re older, but how the very FACT you watch more artistically challenging films in your early years helps teach and prepare you–you may not fully understand them right now, but they’re helping you learn to be a better film viewer and maybe even a better person.

    I remember trying to read Moby Dick when I was a young teenager and slogging through it, not really understanding a lot of what I was reading. In hindsight it may seem like I didn’t get much out of that attempt, that it was a waste of time, but the very effort of trying to read such a heavy novel at that age made me a stronger reader and thinker. And 5-10 years later when I read Moby Dick again, it became one of my favorite novels of all time :)

  3. moviegoer123
    Posted on November 13, 2011 at 2:42 pm

    Locke, I’m trying to watch a variety of films to prepare me when if I become a movie critic. I also watched this because it won award at Cannes Film Festival. The more I look at it, may be I watched the Tree of Life to try to learn from these more complicated, art-house films.

    I know God is somewhere, He’s somewhere in our hearts and lives but where is He? Even though I was almost asleep while watching the Tree of Life, it speculates is God on this Earth. Do we have an afterlife? Some people think there is an afterlife and we rejoice with our loved ones when we are in heaven, yet another speculation this film gives us.

    I could list the speculations that I thought while watching this. It gets more into how we think and what we do in our lives.

    I know it was a film that was harder for me to watch because probably it’s not a mainstream cinema. Anyway, this was my first arthouse, or even experimental film I’ve watched in my few years I worked on doing film criticism myself.

    I knew what was going onscreen however it was a film that needed a different type of viewing, like you said in your review. I wasn’t prepared for what type of film it is. I thought it was the mainstream films that I watch all the time. I figured that out at the beginning of the isn’t one of those that isn’t like “The Help”.

    All I can say is, I know this film has meaning and significance deep within its script by Terrence Malick. I, as a viewer, still have to search for that meaning from a few years from now and I betcha, it will be one of my favorite films of my lifetime.

  4. Locke Peterseim
    Locke Peterseim
    Posted on November 13, 2011 at 3:01 pm

    If you’re interested in film, Moviegoer, that’s the way to do it — check out films that win big festival awards, check out older films that show up on “Best Films of All Time” lists :)

    And while The Tree of Life can be a harder film to watch and “get,” remember it’s not a contest to see who can get the most out of it or fully understand it the best — WHATEVER you take from it, whatever it makes you think about as you watch and later, is all good. And like you said, a really great film (or book, or piece of music, or painting) will keep giving you new ideas and insights every time you watch it, sometimes for decades to come as you get older :)

  5. moviegoer123
    Posted on November 13, 2011 at 6:25 pm

    Locke, I’m very interested in film.

    I won’t be surprised if The Tree of Life gets nominated for a Gold Statuette (Oscar) for Best Director and Picture and wins those two awards.

    There’s an obvious reason why this film won the Palme d’Or award at Cannes Film Festival: delivers speculation to the viewer, learn about life, and how we may got created five billion years ago. It has every right to be nominated for every film award out there. It has more than potential, it has a guarantee that it will be nominated for several awards. YOU LEARN SOMETHING FROM IT THAT’S SIGNIFICANT rather than learning nothing like most films do these days…derive from other films and make it their own and the message isn’t obvious. This film is creative and that’s what we need more of in American cinema.

    The Tree of Life deserves attention and viewing before the awards season comes because it’s a film that people should be talking about when the awards season comes rather than the others that have potential, this one seems like it will be guaranteed it will be nominated. The proof is from the Cannes Film Festival, its winning the highest merit — the Palme d’Or award.

    I’ll be cheering this one on besides “The Help”.

  6. Dave
    Posted on November 14, 2011 at 8:54 am

    I’m going to have to catch this movie – your comments about deep films reminded me of watching “2001: A Space Odyssey” with my dad. I didn’t really know what was going on a fair amount of the time, but I knew I was watching something major. I had a similar experience with my own daughters as we wrapped our heads around “Inception”.

  7. Locke Peterseim
    Locke Peterseim
    Posted on November 14, 2011 at 3:06 pm

    Dave, there have certainly been a lot of comparisons of The Tree of Life with 2001, especially in terms of metaphysical scope and pacing, not to mention like you said, of getting at deeper ideas about humanity. (Plus all those bits with the solar system, planets, and prehistoric life.) I would say the biggest difference (aside from plot — this obviously isn’t a science-fiction story) is that Tree of Life is, despite its unconventionality, a deeply personal, humanistic film about some of the richest spiritual struggles people have, where as much as I love it, 2001 tends to be a little “colder,” more distant and removed, looking at things from a more detached, “cosmic” level.

  8. moviegoer123
    Posted on November 14, 2011 at 9:28 pm

    Well, I better catch 2001: Space Odyssey pretty soon and see if that works for me to understand the concepts of The Tree of Life. Then, once I catch that film, I will THEN watch The Tree of Life AGAIN with an open mind this time.

    • Currently 5/5 Stars
    Posted on November 15, 2011 at 11:57 pm

    I was captivated with the beautiful scenes and soothing music,
    I felt like it was asking all the questions that I have about
    everything!, I didn’t “get” all of what certain scenes were trying
    to convey to the viewer, but I look forward to watching it a 2x,3x.
    I think it’s well worth watching.

  9. Will
    Posted on November 29, 2011 at 7:51 pm

    Hey Locke,
    Just about to sit down and get immersed into the film. Missed it in the theater, unfortunately. Thanks for the tips! I for one would be interested in any other ideal mindsets and settings you might recommend for other flicks in the future. It can be helpful for people who quickly dismiss movies that are demanding, but should not be missed.

  10. milton shapiro
    Posted on December 6, 2011 at 10:11 am

    unwatchable and boring