The Tree of Life is a movie of infinite moments, culled from one person’s singular experience and placed side-by-side in a free-floating mosaic. The best of the film’s posters plays off this idea: still images from different scenes are gathered in a patchwork, though not ordered according to the movie’s nonlinear chronological progression. Whether conscious or not, this separates the poster’s purpose (to sell) from the film’s (to represent, or better, re-present). Interestingly, several of my colleagues have said that certain images in Terrence Malick’s semiautobiographical opus are little more than affected bric-a-brac pilloried from perfume commercials (a shot of a commedia dell’arte mask sinking through the ocean is a frequent target for criticism) or computer screen savers (in the case of the “creation of the cosmos” interlude, featuring work by special-effects legend Douglas Trumbull and others).
We should be thankful that these negative judgments—perfectly defensible—are near-entirely balanced out by the rest of the commentary on the film. (For me, the cosmos sequence feels overwhelmingly tactile and purposeful, in no way a technological placeholder behaving randomly, and the submerged disguise, when considered in context, implies a beautiful conviction about our human comedy: At the end of time, the masks fall away.) This is the mark of a truly vital work, one that sways, flows, and moves with the tides of opinion. Rather than incline solely toward preferred sentiments (those equally superficial extremes of fawning love or vigorous hate), the film invites voices of all tenor to engage it and encourages dialogue that can never truly be silenced. We resonate, or—to quote Malick’s previous film The New World—we rise.
Of all the images, sounds and mo(ve)ments to explore in The Tree of Life, I’m most fascinated by the section during the cosmos sequence that recreates the epoch of dinosaurs. This was, unsurprisingly, a prime talking point for fanboys (myself included) during the many months of pre-release buzz. (Malick and Pleistocene beasties? Woot!) And after I hung the movie’s mosaic one-sheet on my wall, I would often play a Where’s Waldo–like game with friends: “Can you find the dinosaur?” I’d ask, and since that part of the poster was around eye-level, everyone would spot the image—of what looks like a silhouetted raptor out of a Steven Spielberg super-production—almost immediately. Read Keith Uhlich’s article on The Tree of Life.