This is the most visually stunning film ever made. But The Tree of Life is so much more than a beautiful, aesthetic piece. Like any Terrence Malick film, it is infinitely complex and poetic. It is cerebral. It is emotional. And it is highly personal. But this is not a film you see with friends, nor is it an “entertaining” one. In fact, it is meticulously slow. It flows through space, time, and humanity with vignettes of the life of a family. It examines each character in the family at various ages as they process their lives, which are marred by death, grief, abuse, loss of faith, etc. The work isn’t scene-driven or dialogue-driven. It instead features nonlinear flashes of personal moments, dreams, visions, and fantasies—compounded by broader flashes of life and the universe. Indeed, it really is an enigma.
The Tree of Life isn’t a film you’d expect to be set in Waco, Texas. Then again, many scenes were shot in locations across the world—it often feels like Planet Earth. The characters spend time pondering everything from their existential despair to God. So we see all that you can imagine from the Big Bang to human evolution to various shots of our cosmos, perhaps to see the grand things happening while we petty humans question ontological matters. Malick is religious. But he has struggled with doubt and isn’t afraid to connect faith with science. Even as a secularist, I truly admire this layer. Besides, Malick graduated summa cum laude at Harvard, became a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, and then taught philosophy at MIT. He—like this magnum opus—is brilliant. He might even be the smartest director alive.
I honestly wouldn’t recommend this film to most people, though. It is one of my all-time top 3 favorites (as well as a favorite of countless filmmakers and critics). It is also filled with elite actors in Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain, and Sean Penn. Yet it is esoteric. It is vague. It lacks structure. And you can’t watch it passively. You must give it every moment of your attention—or else it is a waste of time. Furthermore, it is arguably as pointless as it is immensely profound due to its polarizing subjectivity. Some call it the greatest film of all time. Some call it elitist trash. But make no mistake: this is a historic achievement. With the best cinematography of any film in cinema history and a kaleidoscope of intellectual and philosophical facets, it will be studied for centuries. The Tree of Life is art of the highest kind.