The Tree Of Life Review
by Bret Dorman
I know this may be ‘blasphemous’ of sorts, but for being a ‘film buff’, I’ve only seen one other Terrence Malick movie. And that movie was A New World, which seeing at the time I was not aware it was supposed to be an ‘understated’ sort of beautiful film and remember being sort of bored with it.
Going into this one though I knew full well what I was getting myself into (sort of) and who the ‘Master’mind was behind this ‘Master’piece.
Simply put, The Tree of Life is without a doubt the most beautiful film you will see all year.
However, what’s going to deter most people from seeing or enjoying this movie is its complete lack of narrative structure, huge sections of experimental filmmaking, and its lack of any real conclusion.
Narratively, this movie seems like a mess. Malick doesn’t use any conventional way of telling his story. He jumps from past to present to future with no explanations and with seemingly little importance to when he shows you what. Sean Penn’s ‘future story’ sort of bookends the film but I don’t see how it really adds to the overall feel. He doesn’t have much dialogue and sort of spends most him time just wondering about.
Most movies spend some time showing you the setting of the movie, where it takes place and what setting the characters are in. Some movies try to show you the ‘world’ the characters inhabit, and provide an overall tone for the characters and make their world real in some context. The Tree Of Life tries to go one step further and show you the Universe that these characters live in. Its a cold, dark, violent Universe that is shown through montage with a beautiful, swelling score that also manages to capture the beauty all around us as well.
Mrs. O’Brien (Chastain) gives us a nice little monologue on The Way of Nature vs The Way of Grace. Its hard to just summarize this movie and say ‘Well this is what the film is about’, but this is a big key to understanding the intent behind some of the more ‘experimental’ parts of the movie.
In fact, throughout most of the movie we get the perspective of three characters, MRs O’Brien, Mr. O’Brien (Pitt), and Young/Old Jack (Hunter McCracken/Penn). These are done mostly through Voice Over Whisperings that seem to go one about nothing in particular. In fact, most of the dialogue in this movie is vague and relates to something that has happened that we don’t see.
In trying to be profound, this movie sets up the beginning of time, the cosmic Universe around us, how life came to be, a couple scenes with dinosaurs, and the modern world. I’m not a huge fan of experimental filmmaking and find most of it boring. I like narrative. And narrative can be simple or complex. But The Tree Of Life will have none of that! Through montage and allegory, we get the sense this movie has more to say without outright saying it.
Which brings me to the last section of the three things that make this movie ‘detering’ to most. Its lack of a real ending. Since there is no formal story throughout the movie, there really can be no ending. Instead of going the route of 2001: A Space Odyssey (A Comparison that I’m sure someone else will explore further), and try to question the meaning and existence of life on a grand scale, The Tree Of Life sort of just questions the meaning of existence of one human, on a quieter scale.
The key to ‘enjoying’ this movie is not looking at everything in terms of the end. This movie is not about conclusions. Rather it is about moments. How moments fit into the grander scheme of all things, perhaps, but not necessarily the grander scheme of the story of this movie. There will be moments where you are in complete awe at the beauty of the Universe around us and moments where you will be tense from family conflict.
So much of the filmmaking in this movie seems improvised. A lot of care was gone into making every little bit look good and the camera never seems to be stuck in place or looking at one thing. Every scene’s little ‘moment’ is highlighted and observed and pushed in on. And the use of jump cuts, is fantastic at elevating that spontaneous feel of the movie. And the camera at times can be fast and erratic, or calm and floating. Either way it carries a momentum most filmmakers can’t achieve.
A lot of emphasis is placed on the relationship between Jack, his Dad, and his Mom (and the marriage of the dad and mom), but sometimes it seems a little too one sided. The mom is beautiful and the dad is mean. That seems to be the big thing the movie is concerned with. In fact, I don’t really like it when a movie has a couple that has so many problems, but neglects to show how they fell in love to begin with. If they fight and disagree over how to raise their kids and other things so much, how did they ever think it was a good idea to marry and have them in the first place?
In (long form) Conclusion, there are just too many shots of people walking through woods alone, or obscure moments of Old Jack wandering through a desert. To me this film is the kind I just can’t enjoy thoroughly because through trying to be quiet and profound it sometimes comes of as pretentious and boring.
And yet, this is the most beautiful film you will see all year. It is a daring movie, one that doesn’t reinvent any Hollywood standard or use a formula to pander to Academy votes, but throws away every normal convention of how a film is told to tell its own story as uniquely as possible. I’m not sure everything that will be drawn from this movie is completely within its text, but the fact it tries to do something so ambitious is worth at least a viewing.
I’m sure I will see this movie again and I’m sure I’ll gain more out of it as well as being bugged more by certain things. There is definitely an importance with light, where light comes from, what it shows, and how it can be blocked/filtered, that requires more viewings for better understanding.
Finally, I don’t mean everything in this review that seems to point out a ‘flaw’ as a negative. I want to just reinforce the idea that The Tree Of Life is not your ordinary film, and not a film to easily digest. What I can say for certain, and the third time (is the charm), is that this is the most beautiful film you will see all year.
Final Grade: B (for beautiful!)