Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The Tree of Life Movie Review

Do yourself a favor if you’re going to watch The Tree of Life: set aside a block of time during which you won’t be interrupted. This is a movie that needs to be experienced in its entirety as single entity. It is not a traditional narrative film. Containing experimental elements, it is more a philosophical exploration of life’s origins and the binary nature of the world we live in. If you’re open to new experiences and ready for a thought-provoking movie, then by all means give it a shot. If, on the other hand, this doesn’t sound like your cup of tea or you read some kind of plot description somewhere that sounded like it’s a good story, then turn back now. This isn’t for you.


There’s little in the way of plot to speak of. There is a family and events occur in their lives in Texas in the 1950’s with some contemporary scenes involving the eldest son, but their story, such as it is, remains secondary to writer and director Terrence Malick’s vision. Brad Pitt is Mr. O’Brien and Jessica Chastain his wife. Jack (Hunter McCracken as a boy; Sean Penn as an adult) is their oldest. Early in the film they receive the news that their middle son has been killed, presumably in Vietnam. I’m not sure why I’ve mentioned that particular piece of information as if it has some special relationship with the other events in the film. It seems to be more about Jack’s difficult relationship with his father, representing the way of nature, and his more nurtured connection to his mother, who represents the way of grace. Forgiveness and love are grace. Strength, strife, war, defense, struggle – these are the ways of the natural world. Or perhaps indifference is more apt. We get flashes of Mr. O’Brien’s interactions with his boys. He teaches them to fight. He demands respect. Their mother shows compassion when Jack tends toward activities signaling his loss of innocence – vandalism and animal torture among them.

If you’re familiar with Malick’s previous work, which spans more than three decades, but only four films prior to The Tree of Life, then you’ll recognize the impressionistic nature of his films that I’ve described above. His films have become increasingly cerebral exercises and decreasingly plot focused and much more driven by a desire to get to the heart of man’s place in the natural world. The Thin Red Line and The New World both have a lost paradise as central themes and both have multiple character voiceover narration that’s more stream-of-conscious than explanatory.

Approaching it as a purely cinematic event, The Tree of Life can be exhilarating. Malick’s films have always employed some of the most gorgeous cinematography and Emmanuel Lubezki’s work here is no exception. They catch the ‘magic hour’ in nearly every shot, which must have taken quite a lot of preparation considering you’ve got a window of 30 to 45 minutes every day to catch the beauty of the sunset in the perfect position for the most marvelous effect on film. Lubezki’s camera floats around capturing poetry in motion: a hand grazing someone’s back; a child’s glance; the way a branch recedes and moves back when touched; a butterfly landing on Mrs. O’Brien’s outstretched hands. There is a heavy focus on human interaction with the world and the beauty that surrounds them. The camera isn’t there to capture scenes, but to record life.

For sequences depicting Creation and the origin of life on earth, Malick went to special effects wizard Douglas Trumbull (the man behind the glorious effects in 2001: A Space Odyssey), who hasn’t worked on a film since Blade Runner. For scenes of the cosmos forming and galaxies being born, they avoided computer effects. Instead they relied on various innovative techniques including mixing liquids of varying viscosity into a tank of water and film it at different speeds and with different lighting techniques. This gives the effects an organic look that more closely represents photographic images sent back from satellites and far-off spacecraft like Voyager.

From a standpoint of trying to understand something of the film’s narrative functions, my only real complaint is that Sean Penn’s presence seems unnecessary given the way the final edit turned out. Malick quite famously shoots a great deal of footage and his actors are shocked to see what comes out in the final product. I definitely got the feeling that Malick’s screenplay contained a lot more development of the troubled and antagonistic relationship between Jack and his father with Jack the adult a lost soul trying to find his way and reconcile with the old man. All of that seems to have been lost in the editing room, leaving contemporary scenes that don’t quite fit and a fantasy sequence of the older Jack reuniting with his family as he remembers them from childhood that has less power as a result of what’s been excised.

It’s a beautiful, painterly film that demands your full attention of faculties. It’s worth coming back to several times, I’m sure, and I’m thankful that there are still producers willing to let a filmmaker like Malick have his way when it comes to making movies. There’s very little of commercial value here apart from Brad Pitt’s presence (hence the reason some cinemas had to post disclaimers warning viewers that they were about to enter a philosophical experience and not to demand their money back if they didn’t like it) which is perhaps part of why I liked it so much.

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