Ciné Coverage : The Tree of Life (2011)

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.

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21 responses to “Ciné Coverage : The Tree of Life (2011)

  1. Great review Anna. I’m glad you liked it, and I completely understand what disappointed you about this film, and what you hoped to find amongst the dual narratives. You are exactly right – it is an experience, and one that every viewer will respond to differently. Many have absolutely loathed it. As a technical achievement there are few experiences I have found to be more amazing, but I really responded to the relationships between the brothers and between Pitt (amazing!) and his sons. It took me a couple of goes, but it’s one of the top films of the year for me.

    • I’m still quite surprised that it seems to be so polarizing, 1/10 or 10/10. I mean, it’s gorgeous as hell, everyone can see that. I mean I’d buy every single one of those frames as a photograph.

      I forgot to hail Pitt ! Might be his best performance ever!

      Did you feel you gained more from a second viewing? My mom wants to see this and I thought I might join her for another go.

      • Yeah, I think it is amongst his best performances. I certainly gained more from a second viewing, especially on the emotional level. The visuals blew me away on the first viewing (and you’re right, it’s gorgeous) but the influence of Jack’s parents on who he becomes, and how the story of the O’Brien’s ties into the origins of the universe, and the meaning of the final sequences on the beach becomes much clearer (I think). This is a film that has to be seen in the cinema. The lights go down, you are absorbed into this amazing visceral experience, and then you snap out of it when the lights come back on. I was mesmerised.

      • Yeah, exactly. I can’t even imagine how this would feel watching it at home, trying to close the curtains so the light won’t reflect out of my little laptop : – ((
        Ok, I’ll take your word for it and will go and see it again : -)

  2. Buzz around Malick seems to be a nature’s law of sorts. Too much hype, I agree, though I have only seen Thin Red Line which was a decent war film in my humble opinion. I’ll probably watch Tree of Life sooner or later when I feel a need to see something more artsy…

    From what I heard there’s hardly any dialogue which is a turn-off for me. At least characters sound fascinating enough.

    • There’s talk. A lot of talk. But very little dialogue. The few conversations between the mother and the father are silent, since it’s from Jack’s p.o.v. But the relationships between the boys do have some interesting, and even fun exchanges!

      If all of Malick’s films were this level, I’d understand what the hype is. But as he’s been working on this .. for probably all of his life, I can’t really say his other work compares. I need to watch Badlands soon. I remember seeinmg bits of it ages ago but remember not being impressed.

      BTW this is a film that one should see in a theatre, just for the visuals!

  3. great start to the festival. i’m just not sure i have the patience for long art films anymore. i’m all for art as cinema and cinema as art but if it can be kept to 90 minutes then i’m happy.

    badlands is almost certainly his most accessible film but i was a little underwhelmed.

    • Haha I do know what you mean. I was actually quite surprised that I didn’t have that uhhh what time is it mentality. It might have something to do with the excitement I had because the festival started.

  4. Nice review Anna. It’s a very demanding film and some people will find it unforgettable and others will be bored to tears. Nonetheless, everyone should experience this movie for themselves.

  5. Beautifully-written review, Anna. I think you fairly and attentively points out what works and what doesn’t about this film for you, as a personal viewer. I’ve read quite a lot of reviews of various view points and it makes me want to experience this for myself even more. It’s interesting that you have two different grades for this, I do agree that Malick’s visual spectacle of what I’ve seen so far deserves a 10 out of 10.

    • Thanks Ruth!
      This was probably the hardest piece I’ve had to write as a reviewer ! The reception has been so varied on this one, that just due to that I think it’s a must-see. Films that bring out so many different reactions must have something great in them, for better or for worse.

  6. Enjoyed reading your review!
    Much like a nature documentary, I left the theatre with a very calm fulfillment. Certainly among the best I’ve seen in 2011. Poetic and beautiful, and the aspect of remembering your own childhood while watching has universal appeal. I’d call it an innocent film, there are no sexual connotations I noticed, makes a change. A few females may be disappointed that Brad Pitt doesn’t get it on, ha ha.

    That’s a great observation, 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.

    The fact the film doesn’t comment much on life in the 50s, perhaps this is a strength in terms of the films longevity? its about timeless family issues more than the time it was set.

    Agree on that if you don’t see it in the cinema, then you haven’t really seen The Tree of Life as it was intended to be watched.

    I’ve linked to your review in this week’s What are other people blogging about?

    From Chris

    • Yeah, there’s that on scene where Jack’s mother is standing by the window and Jack is watching Pitt stroke her face, and in a split second it’s actually him stroking and Pitt is sitting on the couch. It could be that the scenes are not ment to be entirely true, as memories change and can be very subjective!

      Interesting point abot the sexual aspect, I remember thinking that Pitt and Chastain barely even look at eachother, and whenever they fought I thought make-up sex is a-coming. Then I realized that if it truly is from Jack’s p o v then there’s really no reason to have any of that.

      Thanks for linking me Chris!

  7. Some people considered this movie as ‘hippie folk art?’ Way harsh Tai. And I don’t think Mr. O’Brien would have loved a movie about his life to be described as such.

    Nonetheless, I’m also glad that you liked the film and loved its aesthetics.

  8. Pingback: 123 Films Everyone Should See + Ciné Round-Up + Links are sooo 2010… | Split Reel·

  9. I liked it a lot less than you did, but in my own review I would probably watch it for a while but would get bored by it and move on. Had a hard time finishing. Visually it is stunning, but storywise I think it could have been better.

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