Film Review: The Tree of Life (2011)

By James Madden.

Remember the days where Terrence Malick had only made three films in twenty-five years? Yeah, me too. Since The Thin Red Line in 1998, Malick has churned out The New World in 2005, and now The Tree of Life. Adding to this, just recently surfaced photos show a 2012 project with Ben Affleck and Rachel McAdams. Is it possible that we will be seeing more of Malick’s ostentatious filmmaking? It certainly seems so. Until then, we have the film in question: Malick’s fifth film in just less than 40 years, The Tree of Life.

To concisely comment on a film that spans fifty years of a family and the lifetime of the universe in which we live in seems quite the arduous task. Difficult again, is the balancing act of my own equilibrium after viewing such a film that is so paradoxically grandiose in its intentions and extremely subtle in its executions. A reading of such a film can only be just that: a reading. The following examination seems almost too brief. When considering what Malick presents, there is not an abundance of cause-and-effect plot points. Selected moments in a family’s development are simply drawn out over the duration. Nothing is too explicit, which seems to fit perfectly with Malick’s own all-consuming enigmatic mystery.

John (Sean Penn) has grown up to be a dissatisfied man, haunted and longing for the years of his childhood, by the time that we have found him. Flashbacking to a resemblance of 1950s America, John (the younger version played by Hunter McCracken) is the eldest child of three to nameless parents (Jessica Chastain and Brad Pitt). As the boys grow older, we see a house that is filled with love, rambunctious boyhood liveliness and a stern sense of protocol and etiquette. Mixed in between these loose plot points are scenes that show the beginnings of the universe.

These scenes of cosmic and mystical creation and evolutions through time conjure up obvious comparisons to Stanley Kubrick’s seminal epic masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey and its “dawn of man” sequences. While this may not be a completely new device used in cinema, the visual aesthetics are nonetheless breathtaking and awe inspiring.

The universe is expanding!!

The lack of proper linear narrative sees a more polarising element than perhaps the contentious twelve-minute cosmological and philosophical scenes. This does not seem to shock me that much, nor, would I imagine, would it shock anyone has been privy to one of Malick’s four other films (Badlands, Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line or The New World.)

For all of the divisiveness that approaches the film, Malick’s images regardless show the definition of a cinematic auteur. Malick’s trademark shots are indeed much longer than the usual shots you see in most films, and have a visual resonance that is unique and idiosyncratic. Malick’s use of camera angles when Penn walks through his workplace are disorienting and stimulating. And of course, no one shoots scenes with water (whether under or above). Perhaps this just sounds like a big sloppy love letter to a visionary filmmaker, and it is. But the film is not without its problems. It does feel slightly too long, but considering Malick’s last efforts, this is quite the condensed time length.

All three of the main adult actors give fine performances. Chastain is a very warm maternal figure, who is subject to her husband’s outbursts, but does not seem subservient to them. Pitt finds a restraint as well as his frequent eruptions which convey his love for his children as a priority over his chastisements. Penn delivers a subtle performance as a man obviously consumed with some sense of longing. However, it is the performances by the two main boys in the film that should be called to attention. Simple, subtle and yet completely consuming, these young boys (John and R.L., played by Laramie Eppler) inject all of the life in the film. This is the feature film debut of both boys, and it seems clear that they have great potential to continue, as well as an impressive entrance into cinema.

Oscar nominated film composer Alexandre Desplat once again delivers a strong score. Included too are classically composed pieces, with the highlight being Zbigniew Preisner’s “Lacrimosa” when accompanying the climax of the cosmological evolution scene.

The Tree of Life is ambitiously unique, unashamedly epic, brimming with human emotion and will undoubtedly be one of the most talked about films of the year. The critics seem to love it with the film being awarded the prestigious Palme d’Or from the Cannes Film Festival. I anticipate this will not be the only award bestowing bodies come next January/February in Hollywood. Regardless of the awards, The Tree of Life is a film that is a cinematic anomaly. It stands unchallenged as Art with a capital A.

Tree of Life is on current released in Australia through Icon Films.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WXRYA1dxP_0]
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