This review is a part of Split Reel’s coverage on the Espoo Ciné International Film Festival in Espoo, Finland (19.8.-28.8.) The Tree of Life was seen as the opening film of the festival.
Don’t get me wrong, Terrence Malick is someone who I’ve always appreciated as a visual artist and a visionary of cinematography. But for me he’s not really a particularly great filmmaker. And by filmmaker I do mean the person responsible for the process of making a film, from an initial story, idea, or commission, through scriptwriting, shooting, editing, directing and screening the finished product before an audience, but most of all, the conveyer, presenter of a story.
Granted, I haven’t seen everything Malick’s ever done. But what I do know is that The New World is a sluggish, unexciting but beautiful piece that I couldn’t stay awake for, and that The Thin Red Line works as a collection of moments, of which some are stronger than others, but mostly only as a cut-through of some of the best acting talent of the 1990’s. Having had a mixed reception , The Tree of Life has been describes as either the brilliant future of cinema or incomprehensible hippie faux-art. I tried to avoid the reviews, the talk, but it’s been difficult since the film’s been everywhere for the past month.
Easier than saying what Tree of Life is, or is about, is saying what it’s not.
The Tree of Life isn’t a traditional film. It doesn’t follow the familiar pattern of dramatic storytelling. It’s not chronological, it doesn’t really have an end, it merges two different narratives thematically and it doesn’t give you answers to your questions.
If your looking for an escape, that’s definitely not something the film gives you but rather, it forces you to face two very different philosophies, one of love and one of success. Who do you want to be?
Sean Penn plays Jack, a succesful architect that’s haunted by the death of his brother. The film takes place in modern time, but is mostly controlled by Jack’s fleeting memories of his childhood. Whilst his mother (the beautiful Jessica Chastain) provides a loving, warm, empathetic air, his father (Brad Pitt) is stern, authoritarian and at times out of control. Young Jack O’Brien (Hunter McKracken) has two brothers, Steve (Tye Sheridan) and R.L. (Laramie Epller), both of whom he’s very close to. As they struggle to balance the contrasting approaches their parents take in raising them, they face issues of good and bad, caring and striving for success.
As the story is told from Jack’s point of view the scenes revolve mostly around him and his experience of their family and their life. How they were raised is reflected in the grief he feels over the loss of his brother, years after it happened. Although Penn is quite invisible in this, mostly working as narrator, McKracken does a hell of a job as new child actor, playing Jack as a polarized, confused kid coming to grips with the difference between reality and utopia and his own nature. The young Jack reflects his goodness onto his mother, whilst blaming the darkness inside him on his father’s essence.
In addition to the central, personal story of Jack and his life we also get to see the origins of the universe, parts of evolution and .. dinosaurs. Malick idealizes a way of nature, that’s organic and good, instead of the mechanical, greedy modern way that seems to have clouded people into ungrateful crates in the economy-driven cycle of the world. He contrasts Jack’s monotonous, dull, empty industrial life with the image of a flourishing tree, covered in sunshine. The ideology behind it seems to be quite primitive, a commentary on the cohabituation of man and nature where people are just a single fleck in the vast universe rather than at the centre of existence as a superior form of life and consciousness.
Whilst we get to enjoy this impression of the world, a whiff of childhood and its complexities, the tumulus of growing up, there seems to be a lack of direction to the story. The changes from the childhood scenery into the birth and rise of the universe are presented with narration and heartwrenching operatic music. There’s a profound beauty to it all; the exploration of life, love, meaning and its presence in the world, but it lacks focus as a narration and tends to be more like a stream of consciousness than anything else.
But as we’re seeing it all from adult Jack’s point of view, there’s really no reason why it all should make sense to everyone in a traditional way. I just ended up craving some sort of surface to grab onto. At times I was yearning for every second to linger, at times I wanted the experience of watching the Tree of Life just to be over already.
And that’s truly what it is, an experience. Malick is bringing art back into cinema (I never thought it left, but it did get commercialized). As an installation it’s perfect, there’s really no fault to it. But if I’m being honest, I’d loved to have seen a narrative storyline of a 50’s family, an exploration into childhood as a separate film. I’d also would’ve loved to have seen this magnificently done, immensely beautiful depiction of the birth of the universe and the stages of evolution as an art installation. Together, I enjoyed them far more than I ever thought I would have, but if I had seen Pitt and Chastain star together in a complex tale on parenthood that ends in the death of one of their children … not that’s something I would’ve hailed as the best film of the year.
For me The Tree of Life remains a beautiful, if not brilliant piece of art and a pretty good film.
You Will Like Tree of Life If…
– I don’t even know man.
7 / 10 when considered a film.
10 / 10 if considered as visual art.