This review contains spoilers for the movie - but you may enjoy it more if you have an idea of what it's about before you see it.
The Tree of Life is a story of a middle-aged man - Jack - who, in obvious pain, looks back at his childhood. His jumbled, and sometimes unrealistic, memories shows him growing up in 1950's Texas. Through his abusive father, pain and suffering is brought into the child's world, which twists and creates malice in him.
But the close, personal story is interrupted for a much more epic one: that of life on Earth. The creation of the universe is shown in splendid colours. The camera wanders through stars and nebulas. The Earth forms, and the first self-replicating molecules appear. Beautifully computer-generated dinosaurs wander over fern-covered forest floors, to meet disease or disaster. The purity and beauty of the creation point, slowly gives way to greater and greater imperfection, just as the boy's happiness and innocence gives way to suffering and evil.
When we return to the young boy, we know his story is part of a much greater one - that of the Tree of Life. We are reminded of this over and over again, as the camera wanders over the intricate patterns of a leaf, or a swaying forest of underwater reeds, or any other of nature's wonders.
What makes the film special are its images. The sequences with humans in them are shown very subjectively, as a human observer would see or remember them. The crispness and stark contrasts, together with the shaky camera, create a hyper-realistic feel. Special effects are used to enhance the storytelling, not just to impress or dazzle. Houses, clothing and machinery from the period are shown in their imperfect glory.
Unfortunately, the film relies almost entirely on its symbolism and visuals. For a viewer who doesn't grasp them, there's not much surface story to keep them entertained, and the whole film is likely to appear jumbled and incoherent. The director doesn't go out of his way to explain anything - the film's title is about the only clue freely given.
In Jewish mysticism, the Tree of Life is a symbol not only for life on Earth, but for the whole of creation. The origin of the universe - God - is perfection, but that perfection is corrupted as his presence trickles down through creation. In the film, this is reflected both on the cosmic scale - the perfection of creation is replaced by death, disaster and indifference - as on the personal scale - the innocence of childhood is replaced by suffering and malice.
This lack of perfection is not the result of sinning or free will, but part of the natural order. As the priest tells his congregation in one scene, disaster falls on everyone, good and bad alike. For the family, it may come as failure or the death of a loved one; for life on Earth, it may come as an asteroid impact. This, I believe, is at the core of the film's message - the suffering you experience on a personal level may seem cruel and meaningless, but it's part of a much grander cosmic order.
But is that all - enduring suffering and trying to see a deeper meaning? The film suggests there is also grace. At the end, we see dead relatives come to life and meet each other. They embrace, and old bodies turn young again. This mirrors the Jewish conception of the afterlife - the end times, when the dead rise from their graves.
The film may seem quite long if you're not taken in by its message or its entrancing visuals, but in my opinion the beautiful creation sequences alone are worth getting to the theatre.
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