[The Tree of Life
Directed by Terrence Malick
Starring Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, Jessica Chastain, and introducing Hunter McCracken
MPAA: PG-13: For some thematic material]
Is it possible to review a movie that is, for all intents and purposes, indescribable? Can I properly describe a film in a way that doesn’t confine it from the multiple interpretations of its meaning? A film like this, and especially this film in particular, can mean completely different things for completely different kinds of people. Is it a simple family drama? An existentialist journey? A subconscious meditation of memory, both of one’s life and the life of the universe? A metaphysical odyssey? A philosophical allegory?
It is all these things and more, which brought me to this encompassing conclusion: The Tree of Life is about everything. About life, nostalgia, love, loss, hatred, anger, nature, grace, forgiveness, redemption, and everything else mentioned in the above paragraph. The Tree of Life is simply a film about all life and everything around it.
A lot of hubbub was made about the development process of the film, which many believe spanned about 10 years or so. I believe it goes a bit further than that.
A little history lesson: Director Terrence Malick’s career as a film-maker began with the debut feature Badlands, which can best be described as a dark yet meditative “action” film of sorts. Shortly after that was, one of my favorite films, Days of Heaven, a period story taking place in the wheat fields of Texas filled with the most gorgeous cinematography ever conceived in a film.
However, despite the mostly overwhelming praise for that film, Malick, for some reason, just completely disappeared from the radar. It was rumored that he was trying to bring up an elusive project simply called Q, but couldn’t get it off the ground. After twenty years of waiting, however, Malick returned with two features: The 1998 war film The Thin Red Line, and 2006’s historical epic The New World.
Now, for his fifth feature, The Tree of Life seems to be bringing some of the long-dead themes and ideas that didn’t quite make it in Q, and reinvigorating them with new life, pardon the pun.
As stated before, it’s hard to give a plot description for this movie, largely because it isn’t a conventional narrative, because it’s structure is certainly fractured and each individual scene seems to feel almost separate as a snowglobe with their own tiny little arcs, and yet they are all seamlessly connected. So, think of it as this:
The Tree of Life is a series of fragmented memories of a man named Jack (Sean Penn) who reminisces his childhood memories as a young boy (Hunter McCracken) and the polar relationships between his graceful, loving mother (Jessica Chastain), and his strict, disciplinary, and sometimes abusive father (Brad Pitt). Oh yeah, and there are dinosaurs.
That last sentence should be confusing for you. It certainly was confusing to some of the audience members I experienced the movie with when they saw it. But, to elaborate, the film begins with the creation of all life, and I mean all of it. This sequence, which moviegoers have named the Dawn of Time, is quite possibly one of the most–if not the most–visually stunning pieces of film-making ever put to celluloid. The effects surpass even The Fall and The Fountain in terms of sheer inventiveness, detail, beauty, and overall sense of awe. It may sound like I’m spoiling a surprising and integral part of the film, but believe me, you won’t be spoiled at all, since merely describing it is much different from seeing it and all its glory with your own eyes.
On a purely technical level, all I have to say is this: If The Tree of Life doesn’t win–or at least get nominated for–an Academy Award for Visual Effects and Cinematography, then prepare yourself for the Skynet invasion because that obviously means that the Academy is run by robots.
Many have wondered what the Dawn of Time sequence brings to the film. The Tree of Life is equal parts similar and unlike Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. It has the philosophical ponderings, deliberate pace, and visual grandeur of Space Odyssey, but while 2001 was mostly a “mind” film, The Tree of Life infuses that cerebral signature with heart and emotion, which is something that, admittedly, Kubrick’s cosmic masterpiece lacks, in a way.
But, back to the “Dawn of Time”, remember how polarized people were when 2001‘s ending unfolded, with the spectacular Star Gate sequence that quickly transformed into an eerie and bizarre scene in a “hotel” of sorts, and closing with the image of the Star Child? The Tree of Life‘s “Dawn of Time” sequence and its climax can be viewed in a similar way.
It’s easy to see the negative reactions towards it, but looking deeper into it, it poses the answers to the question of Man’s Place in the Universe in a way that only these bizarre, illusory, dreamscape sequences can convey. It’s impossible to just “say” the answers without feeling either lazy, cheap, or unsatisfying, and these memorable moments are what not only provide a feast for the eyes and the mind, but a sense of awe and wonderment that one should feel about the infinity of existence.
If you “don’t get it”, you probably simply just don’t care about man’s place in the universe and all that “philosophical gobbledygook”, so if you want something more accessible, The Tree of Life can still be a recommendation because there is also a wonderful family drama juxtaposed with the heavy elements.
Young Jack’s loss of innocence is portrayed in such a believable way thanks to newcomer Hunter McCracken’s exceptional performance. His facial expressions and mournful monologues are everything actors in Terrence Malick movies are known for, done remarkably well. Jessica Chastain, another relatively unknown actress who’s finally getting some attention lately, is also wonderful as Jack’s mother. She’s the quintessential maternal figure filled with love, compassion, and kindness towards all her children. And of course there’s Brad Pitt, who plays a mean, lean, stereotypical jerk-off dad. He isn’t necessarily a “horrible” father, and he is certainly not portrayed as an antagonist, but he’s strict, disciplinary, and can sometimes take things out of hand. Sean Penn hardly has any dialogue, and what little dialogue he has is done in monologue, but he still manages to stand out in those very few instances.
So, you have a beautiful and emotional family drama coupled with an existential pilgrimage through all of existence and life. What is the metaphorical meaning behind pairing these two wildly different stories together? To do so in GREAT detail would result in some spoilers about the ending which I wouldn’t wish to reveal, but think about this for a moment…
Our main character is a young boy who is born into the world pure and innocent, only to lose that innocence as time raged on in the world, and its cruelties began to open up more and more towards him. He feels angst, rebellion, typical pre-adolescent behavior. He turns to a parental figure, in this case Brad Pitt, for comfort but feels neglected by him, abandoned, sometimes abused.
You know what that sounds like? Like a man experiencing a loss of faith. Man is born into this world pure and innocent, much like Adam and Eve before eating the apple. But the harsh realities of life begin creeping in. The serpent begins its act of temptation. Man loses his way. He calls out to God for a sign, “Father, what next?” And then what…banished from Eden for the rest of eternity. Man now feels neglected, abandoned, and somewhat abused.
The film asks us the same question 2001: A Space Odyssey asks: “What’s next?” In 2001: A Space Odyssey, the question was “What is man’s place in the universe?” and it gave an answer that I could imagine rippled into our culture: That man, in contrast to the large universe surrounding him, is small and miniscule. We must evolve into the Star Child, reach the next step, achieve transcendence.
The Tree of Life asks and answers this same question, but then, at the final closing moments, it answers a brand new one: “Well, now that we know what the next step is…how do we get there?” And without spoiling anything, it’s one of those instances when the answer to a complex and seemingly unfathomable question turns out to be a simple solution. What it is, you’ll have to find out for yourself when you see it (And in case you haven’t gotten the memo yet, you should all go see it, regardless of how a majority of you may be puzzled).
In layman’s terms, in order to achieve the next step and evolve, we must become aware of the world around us, and learn to find love and passion for all of life’s blessings. I’m not a religious man (Consider me agnostic) but that’s certainly a beautiful message I can get behind, and that, to me, is what the Dawn of Time sequence is there for. To actually give us that sense of awe and wonder for the natural world around us.
I can imagine that this was where a few of the outcries and derisions at the Cannes Film Festival originated. That the film was “pretentious” and contained a rather pat and simple resolution to an otherwise grand and encompassing question, yet portraying this simple truth in a complex and symbolic manner. And while this may be one of the few times I can kinda see where people are coming from, let’s be honest here, we’re only human, and we don’t all hold the keys to the universe. And the answer Terrence Malick provides us with is simple on a surface level, but goes much deeper when you realize how incapable people are of accomplishing it nowadays. It’s like what GLaDOS said at the end of Portal 2, “The best solution to a problem is usually the easiest one.” And while what Malick suggests isn’t necessarily “easy”, it’s human. It’s something that only we as human beings can do.
I hate quoting other critics (Something I actually do quite a lot), but I simply must bring this up. Many, many people are aware by now that all of Malick’s movies don’t really tell us stories, so much as they recite us poems. Just as a poem is a collection of words and phrasings that culminate to evoke specific emotions in a rhythmic fashion, Terrence Malick does the same thing but with images. The Tree of Life is probably his most different poem of all, largely because it isn’t necessarily a poem, but, as Roger Ebert suggests, a prayer. A prayer that is, for all intents and purposes, poetic, mind you, but a prayer nonetheless. Not in the sense of asking God for something, but, as Ebert said, “…the kind of prayer when you stand at the edge of the sea, or beneath a tree, or smell a flower, or love someone, or do a good thing. Those prayers validate existence and snatch it away from meaningless routine.”
Will people hate The Tree of Life? Absolutely. I saw it with my mother and while she thought the scenes with the family were emotional and well-acted, she loathed the ending and Dawn of Time sequence so much that it gave her a bad taste in her mouth leaving the theater. But hey, that’s art, and when something unconventional takes shape, it is largely polarizing. Hell, 2001 had its share of scorn when it first released in 1968, and today it is deemed a classic, for good reason. Regardless, I feel like The Tree of Life still has a little something for every viewer, so long as they have the patience to endure Malick’s deliberate pacing.
Final Verdict: Very few movies offer the transcendental experience that The Tree of Life offers. Terrence Malick’s pacing may bore impatient viewers, but rather than analyzing every little detail and trying to make sense of everything, instead it is best to come into the movie with that sense of awe and let the experience wash over you. Viewers in the right mindset will be treated to a visually awe-inspiring, heavily emotional, strange, unique, gorgeous, and elegiac prayer of a film. It’s more than a movie. It’s a spiritual journey, a pilgrimage, and a meditation on the importance of the natural world around us. In short: A prayer.
That is all.
See ya next time. Now if you’ll excuse me, I just want to stand in a beach for 4 hours thinking to myself. These movies have that effect on me. Bye.