The Tree of Life (2011)

Discontented in his career as a successful architect, Jack O’Brien (Sean Penn) pauses to ponder the planting of a new tree. Prompted to reminisce about his childhood, Jack recalls his upbringing in 1950s Texas and the conflict he experienced in choosing his own path amid the disagreements of his authoritative father (Brad Pitt) and his nurturing mother (Jessica Chastain) prior to his younger brother’s untimely death.

I don’t know what I was expecting from The Tree of Life. Going in, all I knew about Terrence Malick’s long-delayed opus was that it was an experimental American drama that starred Brad Pitt and Sean Penn, and that is was resoundingly brilliant despite an intriguingly unfortunate sequence involving dinosaurs. Considering that it picked up the prestigious Palme d’Or at Cannes, and taking into account just how heartbroken I was that I had missed its fleeting theatrical run, I expected to love it considerably more than I did. Though, with a pre-menu declaration that the film is best presented ‘loud’, I will concede that my decision to screen it in my tiny bedroom, on DVD, at twelve o’clock at night was never really going to do it justice.

A film which juggles existentialism with one family’s suffocating angst, The Tree of Life is unlike anything which has ever graced multiplexes before. An ambitious and audacious meditation on life, love and loss – caught up somewhere between the apparently mutually exclusive paths of nature and grace – Malick’s film defies even comparison to Stanley Kubrick’s acclaimed masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey, with the former’s attempts to chart the evolution of life – from the Big Bang to the present day – balancing its grandiosity with an antithetically intimate portrait of 1950’s American suburbia. The result is utterly overwhelming, an experience rather than a movie which is as inspiring as it is infuriating, as impenetrable as it is utterly transparent.

For while some might laud Malick’s thesis poetic or visionary, there is a nagging incongruity at the heart of The Tree of Life which renders it a wholly unsatisfying experience. The director’s understanding of existentialism and profundity appears to end with the shining of light through gently rippling laundry, and the whispering of clichés over cosmic psychedelia.  The result isn’t so much imagery, but images, the most self-indulgent of flashbacks tasked with not only fleshing out the wanton narrative’s necessary backstory but the entirety of creation itself. The cinematography is indeed startling, the mood is certainly ethereal and the questions as searching as ever, however the truth is that the overburdened frame struggling to contain these innumerable ideas is as clunkingly unsubtle as it is jarringly unrewarding.

Cinema is inherently a story-telling medium, and the admittedly minimalist narrative is substantially more powerful than the shots of CGI dinosaurs or an ambiguously recurring light. Malick’s thematic could have been laced into his story – an engaging but oppressive childhood memory which pits father against son – and tied up its loose ends like a good summer blockbuster. But that would have robbed The Tree of Life of its biggest asset, its gnawing imperfection. Life in a Day, also released last year, and asking similarly important questions about our place in the world, was a much more fulfilling feature, and deeply affirming to boot. Like Malick’s film, it found motive in the monotony, compiling anti-narrative footage to shine a spotlight on the sheer miracle of life. The difference: it worked.

But however much I felt let down by The Tree of Life, I can’t deny that it has made its mark. I found its philosophising prosaic, its self-importance pretentious and its wind-blown divinity laughable. That said, it is perhaps testament to the distinctly human nature of the questions asked and the truths pondered that I can feel the film growing on me already. The Tree of Life was audacious and ethereal and provocative and all of those things, but – for better or worse – it just wasn’t Life in a Day.

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About popcornaddiction
I am a psychology graduate, a News Writer for HeyUGuys/BestforFilm and, most importantly, a hopeless popcorn addict.

2 Responses to The Tree of Life (2011)

  1. Matt Stewart says:

    As much hate as this movie gets I am really glad you liked it! One of my favorites of the year 🙂

  2. Pingback: January 2012 – Your Mom Got Chased By A Shark Once « popcornaddict

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