Review: The Tree of Life (2011)
By: Andrew Renfree
“Tree of Life” is definitely a movie that makes you think. It stays with you long after the credits role. You have conversations with friends about different scenes. You consider the symbolism of different moments. You remember the striking visuals throughout. When I got home after the movie, my wife kept asking me, why are you so quiet? “Just thinking about the movie,” I replied.
It is an extremely deep and layered film. The many themes woven throughout—nature vs. grace, questioning God, love vs. discipline—would be a film students’ delight to tackle for a final paper.
Stylistically, “Tree of Life” is a masterpiece. The Cinematography is beautiful. It’s a shame that IMAX technology is often now reserved for summer blockbusters and comic movie sequels because “Tree of Life” would be stunning in IMAX. I would be shocked if cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki wasn’t on the Oscar ballot next year, and at this point I’d put him in the clear lead to take home the gold statue. Lubezki’s work is pure genius, and the visuals alone are reason enough to see this film.
Even the sound plays into the experience. The music itself is profound, but beyond soundtrack even the volume plays into the director’s style with some scenes being almost inaudible and others a powerful crescendo of sound. There is a notice on the door of the theatre that informs movie-goers that the filmmaker’s intent was to have the volume fluctuate; a “we assure you, the speakers are not broken” kind of thing.
But despite all of its plusses, I’m struggling with rating “Tree of Life”. When the movie ended a guy in the theatre loudly proclaimed “thank God it’s over,” and there will certainly be people who share this sentiment. I would not recommend it some of my friends, but there will also be those who absolutely love this movie. I am a big fan of ambiguity in movies—I hate the “Hollywood ending” syndrome most movies suffer from—but there is a fine line between ambiguity and losing the audience. There are times “Tree of Life” crosses that line to the point where it goes from ambiguous to disjointed at times. It’s not really clear what is real, what is a dream. It’s not entirely clear what happens to what characters; Who lives, who dies. It’s not clear which scenes were past and which present. But maybe this adds to the mystique of the film. There will be some people who will take that as an invitation to see it multiple times, and others will write it off as a nonsensical movie. The story is all over the place. If you’re a fan of linear story telling where all loose ends are taken care of, “Tree of Life” is not for you.
I picture the meeting where “Tree of Life” was pitched to Fox Searchlight producers going something like this:
Terrence Malick: “So we have this idea for a movie. It’s about a normal family in the 1950’s. Somewhat interesting things happen to them, but for the most part they are pretty regular. There are a couple of family tragedies, but we’ll never really explore their impact on the characters.”
First Producer: “Hmmm. That sounds like a decent idea. But how about we add a whole bunch of random shots of trees, waves, butterflies, volcanoes, flames, planets, beaches, canyons, deserts, and waterfalls to spice it up a bit?”
Second Producer: “Oh and dinosaurs. We should have a scene with dinosaurs.”
Seriously, there is a random scene with dinosaurs just to up the WTF quotient a bit more.
For me this is a fine movie, but I can’t help but feel that something was missing. The acting wasn’t bad. It’s just that Malick didn’t give his actors a chance to really spread their wings. Why have double Oscar winner Sean Penn in the movie if he barley has any lines? There are moments of Penn brooding or pensively pondering his life, but Penn is underused. Brad Pitt does a fine job as the father, and Jessica Chastain is stunning as the playful mother, but the later might be more due to camera work and editing. Hunter McCracken, in his debut role, cashes in the best performance as young Jack. He is an up and coming actor definitely to look for in future roles.
But my biggest issue with “Tree of Life” was that so many themes and stories were touched on, but none were really fleshed out. Brad Pitt plays a father who is strict, but not overly so for 1950’s America, and we only see a bit of how that impacts his three boys. His sons get into a bit of trouble along the way, but it can all be chalked up to “boys will be boys.” Tragedy befalls this family, but the vast majority of the story takes place before the tragedy, and we only see a glimpse of the impact that has on the family. Characters ask God countless questions which aren’t answered or even addressed later in the film. Overall this is normalcy in the 1950’s. Many of the storylines are not completed and the audience is left wanting more.
However, watching “Tree of life” was a profound experience for me. I was captivated for 2.5 hours by the style of the film. But I asked myself as I left, what was the point of that movie? In the end I felt as if “Tree of Life” was kind of like abstract art. It can be beautiful and thought-provoking, but it’s hard to figure out what the artist’s point is. “Tree of Life” is more poetic than pragmatic. More abstract than actual. More avant-garde than accepted. If you love these aspects of film, this is one of the best.