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  • Writer's pictureJames Rutherford

'The Tree of Life': A Uniquely Metaphysical Treatise on the Lifelong Pursuit of Enlightenment

Movie poster for Terrence Malick's film The Tree of Life starring Brad Pitt and Sean Penn

“The Tree of Life” (2011) is an ambitious and profoundly existential human drama that revolves around the O'Brien family of Waco, Texas throughout the mid-20th Century. Imbued with autobiographical overtones by writer/director Terrence Malick (“The Thin Red Line”, “A Hidden Life”), the film encapsulates the life of young Jack O'Brien (Hunter McCracken) within the grand spectrum of Genesis, the dawn of humanity and the boundless pursuit of enlightenment and transcendence.

The eldest of three boys, Jack struggles under his parent’s conflicting manners: his kindly mother (Jessica Chastain) offering warmth and compassion while his strident father (Brad Pitt) affects a far more stern, often caustic persona with his sons. Mrs. O’Brien recalls a quotation stating that one must choose in life between the path of grace or the path of nature—a provocation that Jack must resolve as he advances along the course of an adolescence beset by misbehavior, adversity and often painful revelation. Indeed the storyline flashes forward to find a middle-aged Jack (Sean Penn) struggling to reconcile a life of disillusionment, as he experiences otherworldly visions of the afterlife upon an astral plane populated by those he has loved and lost throughout his time on Earth.

Visually magnificent and steeped in the complexity of human emotions, “The Tree of Life” is a grand, sophisticated creation that certainly doesn’t pander to a traditional audience. Employing his trademark cinematic devices that include sweeping camerawork, elegiac voice-over narration and a discordant, often fractured narrative, Malick brings a unique artistry to this tale of exaltation and revelation. Staggeringly wide-ranging and piercingly intimate in nearly equal measure, it’s an unforgettable and entirely one-of-a-kind cinematic experience.


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