Warning: this commentary will contain major spoilers for The Tree of Life. You have been warned.
As I've been going around these past few days, I've found that The Tree of Life has stuck with me in a lot of ways. This I think is the sign of a great movie: it sticks with you for periods of time like this.
But then I also came to a realization: Tree of Life is about as far away from a conventional movie as anybody can get in today's day and age. It's a great movie, but it sure as hell isn't as accessible to the general movie-going public as you'd think. Technically, it's not for everyone.
So I thought I'd go ahead and comment on some of the movie's stranger shots, see if I can help make anyone else make sense of it. Some of the shots are there simply for symbolism, and while the symbolism can be clear at some points there are plenty of instances where the imagery gets extremely obtuse as to be indecipherable.
Keep in mind, the symbolism behind these images are how I personally interpret them. Someone with more knowledge of film or someone who worked on it (hint hint, Terrence Malick himself) will know much more about what the imagery means than I do. But I thought I'd supply an interpretation of his more symbolic shots. So here we go:
The Boy Swimming Out of the Water
If you've seen the trailers for this movie, there are two shots of a boy swimming out of a submerged room. It's a scene that could have come straight out of Inception out of context. But in context, it's actually the least obtuse image in the whole movie: basically, that bit is symbolizing childbirth. It's a really strange way to symbolize birth, but it's the most easily deciphered image in the whole movie.
The Mother Dancing in the Air
One of the stranger images that the trailer doesn't show is a four-second shot in the middle of one of the montages where Jessica Chastain's character is seen next to a tree... and she's floating up and down like she's freaking Wendy from Peter Pan. It kind of comes from the middle of nowhere, so at first it's a difficult image to figure out.
I think the key to this particular image is that events later in the movie give some context to it. The mother is more the kind of mother who dotes on her children: it very well could be that it symbolizes what Jack thinks of his mother looking back on it. This is from a montage from fairly early in Jack's life, too, though I have trouble remembering if it was early childhood or if it was after the birth of one of his brothers. Either way, Chastain is shown to dote a lot on her child, and in doing so she seems like the happiest woman alive. So I think that image symbolizes that.
The Beginning of Time
One of the things that annoyed me about the movie was that it spent a large part of the beginning on all this establishing stuff that sets up a framework for meditating on the significance of life. So it goes through the big bang and the dinosaurs before we eventually end up with our suburban family in the 1950's.
It's a framework establishing thing, but honestly, I don't see the point of it. The reason for this, though, is most likely because I don't see this movie in quite the same way as most other critics have. They see it as a meditation on man's place in the universe: I see it as an experience of life, with a little thought on what it means to be human. A large part of the movie is shot like the way we would remember life: we only remember snippets from our past, with the more important events taking precedence. It's essentially a coming of age story with a little bit of universe placement-pondering the way I see it. Hence, you can likely understand why I see some of this imagery as being a little too much.
That said, though, I can see why other critics place more importance on that. Sean Penn's character only appears for about half an hour of screentime (despite his billing) and he doesn't get that much to do. However, it should be noted that all his scenes occur at the very beginning and the very end of the movie. Essentially, Malick establishes that one of the brothers died in Sean Penn's piece of time. (No, we don't actually find out which one it is that died.) As well, Penn looks lost in a lot of his scenes, like he doesn't know where he's supposed to be or even why he's where he is in general. Hence, the whole movie reads like it could be interpreted as a man trying to find his place in the universe.
The Beach Gathering
Also not featured in the trailer:
There's this incredibly weird scene that comes right out of nowhere near the end of the movie: basically, all the characters of the movie (including Sean Penn) get together for about five minutes and walk around a desert/beach area. It's one of the stranger symbols, and I have absolutely no definitive idea what its significance is to the rest of the movie. I am not sure what to think of this scene, as the movie could have ended right afterwards.
But we get some shots after that establish Sean Penn's location.
This leads me to believe that it's a sort of 'coming to terms with oneself' in its significance. Every character the young Jack associated with is there, including... young Jack himself. It comes a bit after Jessica Chastain gives some narration about how love is the meaning of life, so it lends itself to the interpretation that he's finally come to terms with everything that's happened earlier in his life. The movie in general also seems to linger on the more negative moments of Jack's childhood, so he comes to the conclusion that even if life sucks it is still a part of existence. I wouldn't know definitively, but I think this is the strongest interpretation of that particular scene.
So those are my thoughts on some of the images of Tree of Life. There are plenty more where that came from, but I'd likely be stuck here all day if I tried to decipher all of the movie's stranger shots, so... you get this one. I hope you enjoyed it, and for all you film critics out there, feel free to mention what you your interpretations of some of this imagery are.