The Tree of Life is cinema on a grand scale. Sandy George discusses the film's many charms.
26 Mar 2014 - 4:37 PM  UPDATED 22 May 2020 - 10:57 AM

Stirring up debate

Some people will love with great passion The Tree of Life, written and directed by Terrence Malick (Badlands, Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line); others will find it annoying and ponderous. No matter which side you’re on, you can look forward to long, interesting and possibly heated discussions after the credits roll because it is inarguably thought provoking. And what’s life about if not connecting with other human beings?

An utterly complete film

I’m in the love-with-great-passion camp, seeing the film as a bold and complete piece of work, but also one that leaves space for interpretation and imagination. It’s got very high production values – great production design, flawless acting, luscious visuals, music that adds gravitas, poetic editing and so on – a tone that somehow weaves together intimacy and grandeur, and an intellectual underpinning that conveys the complexity and origins of both individual life experience and all that exists in the universe. Big claims, hey! And why, the whole package invokes a feeling of transcendence.

A Palme d’Or winner

The Cannes Film Festival and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in the US stage the two most significant film award ceremonies on the planet. I pay more attention to Cannes and to what film wins the Palme d’Or, and in 2011, you guessed it, The Tree of Life won. Its three Oscar nominations were for best film, direction and cinematography.

The three boys

The audience sees into the actors’ minds in The Tree of Life, another reason for the film’s experiential nature. Brad Pitt (who was also a producer), Jessica Chastain and Sean Penn are all unsurprisingly splendid, and the naturalism of the three young brothers is captivating, too. As many as 10,000 boys in two US states came under the gaze of the creative team and the three shortlisted for the role of Jack were cast: Hunter McCracken (Jack), Laramie Eppler (JL) and Tye Sheridan (Steve).

Nurture vs. nature; mum vs. dad

I can never get enough on the topic of nurture vs. nature – and I’m sure I’m not alone – and regularly think about which parent contributed which parts of my character. (A by-the-way: my father’s headstone says “His life goes on in us”.) I suspect I found The Tree of Life particularly affecting because of childhood echoes: three brothers of similar age and a mother and father very different in personality. Click on ‘featurette’ under videos here to see the producers and some of the cast talk about aspects of this.

Watch: Jessica Chastain discuss The Tree of Life
Watch: Reaction to The Tree of Life at Cannes 2011


Watch 'The Tree of Life'

Wednesday 27 May, 4:55pm on SBS World Movies (now streaming at SBS On Demand)

USA, 2011
Genre: Drama, Fantasy
Language: English
Director: Terrence Malick
Starring: Sean Penn, Jessica Chastain, Brad Pitt
What's it about?
Director Terrence Malick (Badlands, The Thin Red Line) traces the evolution of an 11-year-old boy in the Midwest, from his first experiences of joy love and mercy (from his mother), to his introduction to the 'ways of the world' (from his father). Each parent contends for his allegiance, and the boy must reconcile their claims. His experience of the world, once a thing of glory, becomes a labyrinth as he seeks unselfish love. Winner of the Palme d'Or at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, and nominated for Best Picture at the 2012 Academy Awards.

The Tree of Life Review: Malick ponders our place in the universe

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