The Tree of Life, by Terrence Malick, is a serious film in a cynical time. It is a film that you have to either fully or partly embrace if you are to appreciate or even like it. Similar to the the films of Theo Angelopoulos or Alexander Sokurov this is a film that deals with big themes in an honest [even earnest] way and if you don't ride with them you may feel like turning away.
The film is not a typical narrative film. It is instead a cinematic poem that is comprised of a series of visual and aural moments and vignettes that flash by onscreen in the way that a memory might in the mind of someone who remembers their childhood with an acute clarity. [Critic Todd McCarthy likens it to a symphony].
Most all movies have poetic moments in which the filmmaker presents us with a montage that breaks away from the narrative to express a particular tone or to show time passing. It is a narrative technique that can infuse a movie with energy and distinction as well as give us a rest from the plot. The Tree of Life is a movie almost completely made up of such moments. That is both a good thing and somewhat of a challenge.
Good because [if anything] it lives up to the promise of the trailer. What I mean by that is there are many times we see a trailer that captures the best poetic and visually interesting moments of a film. But when we see those moments in the context of the film they seem almost banal. Not in the case of The Tree of Life. This is a movie that maintains the intoxicatingly splendid visuals and editing thrills from start to finish.
Somewhat of a challenge because the movie is like a high wire act in which the audience is the one on the high wire. And this begs the question, how long can most of us remain engaged when the visual and aural moments are of such splendor? Or, more to the point, how long can we stay focused when the narrative never really establishes itself from the overpowering form? How long can we hold-out without a story to grab our attention?
If you cry watching The Tree of Life it won't be because of the death of a young boy [a plot point we know in the first reel] but because of the way Malick edits music and visuals together in such a magnificent way. I happen to think that is a perfectly legitimate reason to shed a tear or two. But others may disagree. Others may want us to feel the emotion by intimately getting to know the characters. Others too may want a traditional narrative with character development and a plot to follow. Malick is not interested in that. And, frankly, I don't think we should be either - because, after all, this is his vision and his way of telling a story. And so it should be judged on the merits of the expression of his vision.
The acting, such as it is, is good. The children are best because they seem to fit into Malick's grand innocent and mysterious world view. They don't seem to be acting but rather existing and reacting to the world around them. Brad Pitt juts out his jaw a lot as the authoritative father but he maintains a believable attitude throughout. Jessica Chastain has a purity to her that is angelically bland and Sean Penn seems lost in thought when he is on screen - which he is, actually.
The cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki and the editing by numerous editors over a three year period are the real winners here. As is the utilization of the musical score, which comprises works from such masters as Bach, Brahms, Berlioz, Mahler, Smetana and contemporary film score maestros Alexandre Desplat and Zbigniew Preisner - the former who is credited with the score.
Malick has given us a vision of life - all of life; from beginning to end. From the big bang to the creation of earth to evolution to the death of dinosaurs to the innocence of growing up in 1950's Texas [where DDT is merely a cool thick fog] all the way to present day and beyond. It is film that is at once Biblical and personal, terrifying and reassuring, dreamlike and surreal but also grounded in the cycles of nature. It deals with grace and hope in ways that might make you cringe or cry but which you cannot deny is presented with power and originality.
I think it is a great film with some flaws. Some would say that about life.
I can't wait to see it again.
An article on the cinematography.
Some good observations and background on the film.
Popmatters considers the themes of Malick's films.