In 2011, when ‘The Tree of Life’ first premiered at Cannes Film Festival, it divided the audience right in the middle. Some called it a masterpiece, while others labeled it as an excessively indulgent piece of experiment. A few days after the premiere, which drew both boos and applause, the dust settled down. Many re-watched the film. People in other parts of the globe also got to see it. Slowly, but surely, critics and cinephiles started recognizing the inherent beauty, message and theme of the film. It went on to win Palme D’or, the highest prize awarded at Cannes, and then later in the year, ended up getting nominated for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Cinematography at the Oscars. In the Sight and Sound list of greatest films of all time, it was among the only three films (‘Mulholland Dr., and ‘In the Mood for Love’ were the other two) from 21st Century that made it to the Top 150. Roger Ebert placed the film is in his top 10 greatest movies of all time. ‘Tree of Life’ has a simple story, however, it is not an easy film to decipher — at least on first viewing. Why is it such a difficult film to understand and more importantly, appreciate ? What are its underlying themes that Malick delves into ? Let’s dig in.
‘The Tree of Life’ is a story of a man, Jack O’Brien (Sean Penn), an architect in Houston, reflecting upon his childhood years in Waco, Texas. Aside from the show-stopping “Origins of Universe” sequence in the film’s first act, ‘Tree of Life’ is basically a kaleidoscopic assemblage of Jack’s poetic remembrances and dream-like contemplations about his relationship with his mother, father and brothers when he was young. It’s quite apparent that through ‘Tree of Life’, Malick is opening a window into his own childhood — though he lends a magical quality to his relatable story. But why does he revisits his childhood to seek answers to metaphysical questions about God, life and death ? The answer to it isn’t as complicated as you might think.
As much you grow and progress in life, the foundations and roots of who you are will still remain in your childhood. As we grow older, we keep finding ourselves a mask to hide our real selves — but always go back to our childhood to remind ourselves who we really are. The special attachment that one has with childhood memories may, in fact, be due to their power to bring us back to earth – lest we forget our way in this muddled universe. That might also explain why we cling on to our childhood memories. After all, they, usually, are the safest bets to help find our true selves in case we feel lost.
It is also equally fascinating how much you learn from your childhood memories; you learn about your friends, your parents and more importantly, about yourself. Those learnings may not have happened when you were a child – your impressionable mind lacked the ability to understand everything — but as an adult when you look back at those events of past, you realize and develop an understanding of why it happened what happened. It is this “learning”, it is this “understanding of oneself” that Jack seeks by going back to his childhood memories when he finds himself struggling to make peace with the loss of his brother and other existential questions about life.
There is an essence and a feeling that you associate with every memory of yours; I am talking about nostalgia. I can’t think of a single film that so effectively captures the feeling of nostalgia the way ‘The Tree of Life’ does. And that’s what is so special about the film. Malick doesn’t just try to capture memories, but the feelings evoked by the act of memory. Memories, in itself, are nearly impossible to depict on film. Most of the times, the version of memories we see in films are not only unrealistic but also far from how actually we visualize our memories as. In actuality, memories are fragmented, fleeting, non-linear, infinite-on-the-edges, sometimes exaggerated, and sometimes poetic. And that’s exactly how Malick treats memories as: not as realities, but imagination of realities.