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Why Do People Love or Hate “The Tree of Life?” What Makes it So Polarizing?

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Much like life itself, The Tree of Life (2011) requires patience to appreciate.

Terrence Malick’s films are works of experimental art, and none fall under that description more than The Tree of Life. With little narrative to speak of, long, ethereal sequences of shapes, colors, and movement, and an ambiguous message, it’s simply not a lot of people’s cup of tea. Investing in the film requires a desire to absorb oneself in the meditative material, to contemplate the images as they’re shown, to connect the meaning of sequences and effects, and to build one’s own interpretation through attention and thought. There’s work involved. The film hands nothing to the viewer, yet offers them the opportunity to discover so much.

To some, the film may not offer anything. To others, it may be the most revolutionary film they’ve ever seen. Both experiences are valid, as this type of picture speaks differently to everyone who sees it. It’s likely that no two people have watched The Tree of Life and found the exact same meaning, felt the exact same feelings, and thought the exact same thoughts. A lot of the film’s ideas and concepts relate to people based on their own lives, and their own circumstance. The film attempts to tell the story of all of human existence through the lens of one infinitesimal family. If an image is worth 1,000 words, The Tree of Life has the longest script ever written.

Some of the film’s non-narrative sequences likely drag on too long, losing audience’s attention. Only about 20 minutes into the film, a 15 minute-long sequence depicting the creation of the Earth, the birth of life, and the development of consciousness is rendered largely with liquids, colors, lights, and water. It makes you wonder if you’re watching a Brad Pitt movie, a high school biology video, a religious film or a National Geographic special - and in fact, it’s all of those things. It’s one of the strangest combinations of archetypal and impressionistic art. Well-phrased by Scott Tobias of The AV Club, “Malick has made a startlingly direct expression of man’s relationship to the natural world and to other forces beyond human comprehension.”