Review: The Tree of Life


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Human beings hustle to and fro through their lives, going through the motions day by day. Society has become entrenched within itself, as politicians bicker over the future of nations, corporations profit as economies struggle, and the environment to sustain life on Earth slowly descends into oblivion. The rise of technology has allowed machines to advance closer to becoming man, as man slowly but surely becomes a machine. Even ostensibly spiritual practices have become redundant, a routine strictly done for the appeasement of the soul, rather than the enrichment of it. As a whole, the human race seems to have lost the ability to be in touch with its inner self, its collective subconscious. It only takes a moment to separate oneself from the trivialities of the day, and wonder at the mysteries of life and universe, to appreciate something that is greater than oneself. The universe has existed long before the dawn of man, and will continue to exist long after man’s extinction. One’s individual existence is infinitesimally minute in the grand scheme of things. What, then, is the meaning to our lives? Where does my century of life fit into the millennia of the cosmos?

I first saw Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life back in June of this year, but at the time there was no possible way I could even begin to unravel the film’s many mysteries. The film was simply too big and complex to fully comprehend after a single viewing. Now that the film is available for home release, diving into Malick’s opus a second time gave me a better idea of the overall scope and thematic interests embedded within. Though it is nearly impossible to encompass The Tree of Life within a few words, the film looks at how one man’s childhood in 1950’s Texas shaped him as a person, and how a tragic event in his life forces him to consider how his life fits into the workings of the universe.

The film’s central character, Jack, is portrayed by two actors. Initially, we are introduced to him as an adult, played by Sean Penn, a man lost in the modern world, the urban canyons of Houston, Texas. Though Penn is not onscreen for very much of the film, his performance is deeply internalized, conveying pain, confusion, and a deep sorrow. The majority of the film is spent with Jack as a child, played by the unknown Hunter McCracken. Though this is McCracken’s first time onscreen, his lack of his experience is actually an advantage, allowing the film to focus on the nuance and subtlety in his physical performance, rather than any of Jack’s dialogue. Indeed, McCracken’s performance, much like his character, is shaped by the actors portraying his parents.

Most present in the The Tree of Life is Brad Pitt as the father, a true force of nature (as the film suggests), molding his children to become like himself. Pitt has always been a good actor, allowing his natural charisma to carry most performances, and occasionally deviating off course for more eccentric work. In this film, however, he completely inhabits the character, to such a deeply convincing level that one forgets that they are watching one of the most famous actors on Earth. The father’s blunt and oppressive parenting creates a deep resentment within his sons, and to some degree, the role of the asshole father might have been too easy to portray. Pitt, however, gives the role a startling dimensionality, giving the father a hidden sincerity and buried regret for his own past mistakes.

On the other end of the spectrum is the mother, played with unconditional love by Jessica Chastain. A presence of grace in her son’s lives, the mother may appear to be a bit passive in comparison to the father but carries equal weight and worth in Jack’s mind. In fact, Jack even idolizes her, seeing her as a free spirit floating in the air like a scene out of Tarkovsky’s Zerkalo, or meant to be preserved in a glass coffin in the forest like Disney’s Snow White. It is actually Chastain’s voiceover that guides much of the film, establishing the themes of nature and grace at the outset of the film, as well as giving voice to the questions plaguing the family’s mind based upon the tragedy that marks the film’s expository conflict. It is these two forces of nature and grace, represented through his parents, which work constantly within Jack. “Father. Mother. Always you wrestle inside me,” says Jack. “Always you will.”

Although there is plenty of conflict present in this portrait of a family in 1950’s Texas, it is never conveyed through typical narrative means. The inherent genius of Malick’s film is that, like his other films, it is told through its visuals. Dialogue is scarce in The Tree of Life, and the occasional voiceover allows us to delve into characters’ inner thoughts. To tell a story as vast and massive as Malick intends would be pointless and boring were it examined through words. Films are meant to be told visually, so if a picture is worth a thousand words, then there are hundreds of pictures adorning The Tree of Life. Photographed with jaw-dropping detail and naturally lit exposure by director of photography Emmanuel Lubezki, there are images in The Tree of Life which will likely last in the viewers mind for the rest of their lives: Branches reaching towards the skies; two hands nestling an infant’s foot; elongated shadows of children playing on the street. It is visual poem of one summer in the life of a child and conveyed without any narrative trappings.

The relationships of these images are thus conveyed through the editing. Malick typically employs multiple editors on his pictures, partially due to the massive amount of footage he films during production, but also because of the wealth of choices there are in approaching how to cut all of the footage. Having several points of view in editorial allows for Malick to tinker with his film endlessly, as the film was in post-production for over two years. What is so remarkable about the editing is how it conveys stream of consciousness and the process of memories. Since the film begins and ends with Jack as an adult, the center of the film functions to show the adult Jack remembering his life as a child. Thus, there tend to be ellipses in time, sudden jump cuts, and occasional long takes. These are not mistakes on behalf of the editor. Rather, Malick is literally bringing us into the subjectivity of Jack’s memories.

Following the film’s opening showing us the family dealing with the tragedy brought upon them, the mother begins to wonder, “Why?” Malick turns to the beginnings of the universe. Using a combination of practical visual effects as well as photographs provided by the Hubble Space Telescope, The Tree of Life shows us the creation of galaxies, stars and planets. Then, it chronicles the beginnings of life on Earth, from single celled organisms, to the age of the dinosaurs, and finally towards the family in Texas. What is the purpose of all this if one could easily watch a Discovery Channel special? It might not seem immediately evident, but within the context of the film’s opening, this diversion to the creation of the universe may become a bit more apparent.

Likewise, the film’s final scenes have also drawn bafflement and also some condemnation as to their suspected literal meanings. Criticism came toward the film for being overtly religious in its themes and ideas, especially based upon the film’s opening quote from the Book of Job, and its visual metaphors for its conclusion. I will concede that there are plenty of references toward God, and though it is true that the family is undeniably Christian, I do not think that makes the film inherently Christian. After all, the film’s cosmic sequence features the process of evolution, and I posit that the film’s conclusion is as mysterious and strange as it needs to be, more reminiscent of Fellini’s 8 ½ than anything explicitly stated in scripture.

In the end, perhaps the most remarkable thing about The Tree of Life is how open it is to interpretation. To those searching for explicit symbolism, this is not the film to analyze. The Tree of Life is whatever you want it to be. It can be a look at how parents raise their children, how a boy becomes his father, how a man comes to terms with loss, the presence and absence of God, or how our seemingly insignificant lives fit in the fabric of space and time. If there is anything I can say with certainty about The Tree of Life, it is without question a masterpiece and a work of genuine visual poetry, employing every tool cinema has to offer, and showing that films can aspire to art. It simply asks us to simply take a step back from the business of our daily lives, and wonder.

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~ by romancinema on October 18, 2011.

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