The Tree of Life

Cinematography = good

Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life is a high-minded, high-concept, sincere and solemn film. It begins with what appears to be a ray of light and some choral music, then a fifteen-minute surge of words and images – boys playing, Brad Pitt glaring, Sean Penn worrying – that hint vaguely at a plot but will not let us settle. It’s a memorable experience – the camera, aptly, swoops in and amongst these scenes in disorientating, near-nauseating fashion. I think I liked this bit.

Then, all of a sudden, abstract CGI shapes and colours fill the screen. I was confused, not to mention worried that Malick was following Gaspar Noé’s Enter the Void in attempting to extract profundity from Windows Media Player visualisations. But then: ah, planets forming. Dinosaurs roaming. This was some kind of history of the cosmos, like an updated Fantasia or high-budget Discovery Channel doc. Occasionally someone from the cast (who knows who) would offer breathy voiceover about the ‘way of nature’. I’d worked out what I was watching, but it remained unclear why.

After a full 40 minutes, the decent film within this froth finally gets going. Malick places us in the company of small-town, middle-income American family living in the not-too-distant past. We watch as three boys are born to Jessica Chastain, an angelic figure who speaks exclusively in whisper and is at one with butterflies. Pitt is her disciplinarian husband, a more complex, tortured soul who ‘hugs’ his children by grabbing them into his midriff and batting them on the head.

The boys’ upbringing makes for gripping and distinctive drama, excellently conveying childhood confusion, love, fear – and a sense of potential violence that’s achieved despite never showing much. I think this is partly down to Pitt’s superb performance, his eyes all troubled and jaw permanently clenched, and also the brilliance of Hunter McCraken, playing the eldest child Jack, shuffling around with extreme awkwardness and always looking ready to flinch.

The film concludes with a section apparently depicting the afterlife which I can’t even be bothered to describe. I love Sean Penn’s world-weary face but he is wasted here as the adult Jack, wandering around on a vast, grey beach, hugging what appear to be the lost souls of his former family. I found it overblown and meaningless.

The most powerful moments in cinema are often those which occur in our own minds as viewers – implied on screen but not spoken, or taking place just out of shot. The Tree Of Life works best when, in its middle section, it reins itself in and allows its messages to seep in slowly, under your skin. But this is ultimately a maximalist film which refuses to leave anything to the imagination: if Malick wants you to think about religion, he will impose continuous disembodied utterances about ‘the grace of god’; if he wants you to consider our place in the universe, he will actually depict the creation of the universe. A germ of a stunning piece of work is in there somewhere – but this is a film that leaves you wanting less.

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3 Responses to The Tree of Life

  1. I guess we agree on most things, but I tend to have a weakness for “failed” masterpieces. Really liked your conclusion: “A germ of a stunning piece of work is in there somewhere – but this is a film that leaves you wanting less.” That’s exactly it – but how rare it is to think this of a film. And of course I “loled” at the bit with the “media player visualisations” and Gaspard Noe: just spot on!

  2. Uncle Kevin says:

    We (CM and I) thought it was overrated. The soundtrack was good – but turns out you can’t get the non-original stuff on CD – damn.
    The family drama is very gripping though completely monochrome and relentless. There’s a bereavement issue at the start ( after all the pretentious cosmology etc) which is very confusing as you know a child has died but it’s never clear who or how. The scene at the end was complete crap.
    So buried inside this mess, is a decent domestic drama set in Waco Texas in the 1950s, with a near sadistic martinet of a father, who seems to be producing a likely homicidal eldest son. Done well, it might have been on a par with Revolutionary Road, which makes one wonder whether it’s an original screenplay or an adaptation from an unknown novel, 4/10 but Pitt is good as is the son.

    • JamieR says:

      I don’t think there’s a source text – apparently it’s very personal to Malick, who grew up in similar circumstances and also lost a brother who was good at the guitar etc.

      I was drawn back to see it for a second time last night. It was interesting to see those (beautifully filmed) opening scenes in a less-confused state my reaction didn’t change to what you rightly describe as the ‘complete crap’ at the end.

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