REVIEW: The Tree of Life

The Tree of Life (2011)

Reviewer: Pierre Badiola
Rated: 12A (UK)
Release Date: July 8
Director: Terrence Malick
Cast: Brad Pitt, Jessica ChastainHunter McCracken, Sean Penn

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Leaving Cannes in the wake of both boos and applause (always a trademark of a film worth watching), Terrence Malick’s six years-in-the-making Tree of Life surely made quite the splash last May. His two and a half hour magnum opus of existential soul-searching has attracted some backlash from critics citing over-ambition, absurdity, unevenness and even overtly religious content as major stumbling blocks for this usually palatable director, although the general reaction has been favourable (the film went on to win the coveted Palm d’Or in competition).

A condensed product of all Malick’s previous ethereal preoccupations, Tree of Life resides in a negative space somewhere between family drama, autobiography and philosophical rumination. It sits there in the grey and wrestles with itself until it builds towards a beautiful, pointed conclusion. Through it’s nontraditional narrative form and intimately portrayed, outwardly looking spiritual quest, it stands as a singular experience and an elemental force of cinema.

The film opens on a quote from the Book of Job (“Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?”; a passage in which the Almighty brazenly reminds man of his own insignificance) and the story of Job — a tragic subject of life’s malevolence — is representative of the emotional and spiritual mire that Tree of Life revels in. Job loses his children to an irrational blight, here the O’Brien’s lose a child to war.

Set mainly in suburban 1950s Texas, the film darts back and forth between time periods before and after the death from four principal perspectives: Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien (Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain), young Jack (Hunter McCracken) and adult Jack (Sean Penn), whose modern-day segments seem to be set in an alien world full of looming skyscrapers and little else. Through use of softly whispered monologue, rhetorical questioning, poetic tenets et al. we peer into the private consciousness of a family unit that’s coming to terms with death, suffering, creation, upbringing and everything inbetween. Those who remember the character narrations from The Thin Red Line will be familiar with the type of internal storytelling on display here and Tree of Life recalls those same themes of morality and human nature, albeit on a grander scale.

The longest stretch of narrative focuses on the birth of Jack and his two siblings, together with their own individual births of sentience. We witness Jack’s jealousy of the attention lavished on his baby brother. We see him learn to walk, learn to fight, learn to rebel. We see his first reactions to a burn victim, a disabled person. We witness his discovery of female attraction which leads him to steal a negligé from one of his neighbors in a scene which in any other film would be comical, yet here pangs with the pain of lost innocence. It’s in this lush, developmental mosaic that Malick provides us with his most traditionally coherent arc and his most vivid points of detail. Their home seems perpetually bathed in the light of a cool sunset, and the camera, trained by Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, seems equally enthralled by billowing leaves and curtains as it is by human faces.

Mrs. O’Brien is portrayed as an ever-loving, angelic figure (aren’t all our mothers?). Her strawberry curls, alabaster skin and floral dresses emit a picture perfect image of nostalgic safety, and her preference for sympathy comes at odds with her husbands’ hard-shelled exterior. Pitt’s crew-cut model of 1950s patriarchy is characterised by pride, stubbornness and an overpowering, Darwinist will to make sure his boys grow up prepared for the world. In one scene he aggressively instructs Jack to throw a punch at him, Jack refuses. “You undermine everything I do” he says at one point to his wife.

The most interesting talking point however arises when Malick contrasts Jack’s birth with that of the universe. His very own “In the beginning…”. In a sweeping, near wordless tableaux of images that tracks creation’s progress from the Big Bang to the very first microscopic organisms, to CGI dinosaurs and eventually the comet that kills them, Malick throws biographical drama out the window in favour of fevered BBC nature documentary, soundtracked to a booming Lacrimosa. Much like the match-cut from bone to spaceship in 2001: A Space Odyssey, it’s an astonishing interjection that not only calls to attention the unfathomable scope of existence, but also works to re-contextualise the seemingly inconsequential familial drama surrounding it; Waco, Texas becomes the prototypical Garden of Eden, the O’Briens the first family on Earth struggling to find their way towards Salvation.

Though Malick refuses to give Christian names to Jack’s Adam & Eve creators, he handily offers us umbrella terms representative of each: ‘Nature’ and ‘Grace’. The film’s dialogue, promotional material and official website make a point to emphasise these words and I think they are important in setting up the main contention, if there ever was just one, of the film; whether the choices we make are driven out of self-preservation, or out of compassion. Tree of Life argues — through zooming out into life beyond humanity, the planets, the universe — that we (mankind) should proceed not just to survive, as someday we will not, but to love, and through doing so we will reach some kind of ineffable, spiritual utopia.

The message that ‘Love is the pathway to God’ may be an adage as old as the Bible, but Malick’s skillful eye that manages to explore that eternal truth with living, breathing, personal interiority is what marks him as one of the greatest modern auteurs. The Tree of Life, with it’s unending abundance of beautiful images and sentiments, is a gift.

NB: I’m not at all religious, Malick’s imagery is, but the search for ulterior, spiritual peace is universal and the film reflects so.

Movie Rating: 4.5/5

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The founder of The People's Movies, started the site 20th November 2008.The site has excelled past all expectations with many only giving the site months and it's still going strong. A lover of French Thrillers, Post Apocalyptic films, Asian cinema. 2009 started Cinehouse to start his 'cinema education' learning their is life outside mainstream cinema. Outside of film, love to travel with Sorrento, Guangzhou and Manchester all favourite destinations.Musically loves David Bowie, Fishbone, Radiohead.