Day 61: The Tree of Life

"The nuns taught us that no one who follows the way of grace ever comes to a bad end."

So, I'm switching things up a bit. Since Drive comes out tomorrow on blu-ray, I want to wait to watch it again before doing my review, leaving me with a bit of a conundrum since I wanted to do these in order. I've decided just to review the last two out of order instead. Make no mistake, I loved Drive, but Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life was the best film I saw last year beyond a shadow of a doubt. Now, I have to warn you first off, I make no guarantee that you will like this film. You may downright hate it, especially if you didn't have the chance to see it in a theater. It's a film that requires the biggest and best presentation available. Fox's blu-ray release is immaculate and is one of the absolute best discs in the format, but it still pales in comparison to seeing it on the big screen.

Dissecting and analyzing the plot would be folly. The film is a free-flowing, almost stream of consciousness film that defies all of the basic tenets of storytelling, yet manages to work in spite of it all. I'm not sure which critic it was from that said this, but the film is almost shot from the point of view of a higher power watching one family's life unfold.

The use of voiceover in particular reinforces this theory as most of it is solemn and prayer-like. It is a disorienting experience the first time you watch it, and my overriding emotion for the first forty-five minutes or so was frustration. I wanted the film to just settle down so I could follow what in the hell was happening. This isn't a film that's going to give you what you want, and it presents human life as a microcosm of experience in this world. There are moments that will resonate deep within you, no matter what sort of childhood you had, and I feel that if more people were willing to just give the film a chance, they would find themselves connecting with it in a visceral way.

After opening with a quote from the Book of Job, the film jumps back and forth a bit in the first half hour, showing a family learning of the death of one of their sons. The father (Brad Pitt) and mother (Jessica Chastain) are grief-stricken and deal with the grief in their own way. When the film flashes back to their early life, they are a classic study in nature versus nurture. The father, representing the former, is hard on his sons, trying to teach them that the world isn't fair, and they'll have to fight for what they want in this world. The mother, representing grace, connects with her children in a deeper way than their father, showing them that grace and forgiveness are the best way through this life.

Sean Penn plays the eldest son, Jack, as an adult, and he is shown in the present, working a job as an architect, and dealing with the grief over his brother and haunted by memories of his childhood. Just when the film seems it's never going to settle down, we abruptly jump to the creation of the universe. It's a bold leap, yet somehow manages to work in a way that I never, ever thought it would. We're taken back to the dawn of time, and then through the Earth's evolution (yes, there's dinosaurs, and no it's not as strange as it sounds). After this nearly thirty minute diversion, the film finally settles down to show the history of the O'Brien family. It takes us through their marriage, the birth of their three children, and then the bulk of the rest of the film follows them while the boys are pre-teens. We see the father projecting his failures on his children, how they thrive whenever he's not around, and what it was like to be a small-town kid in the late 50s and early 60s.

The films final act flashes back to adult Jack as he wanders away from his office building and onto a beach, reuniting with his family in some sort of metaphorical shore that may or may not represent heaven. It's not cut and dry, and is more than certainly up to the individual viewers interpretation, and Malick is a smart enough filmmaker to not spell things out and trust that the audience will read their own experiences into this story and interpret it in their own way. I've spoken with several people about the last twenty minutes of the film and heard something different from each of them, so I'm curious to know more about what some of you thought of the third act.

First and foremost, the film is gorgeous. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki shoots the film using a luscious color palette of warm ambers and greens. It's certainly breathtaking and has the feel of a home movie, making it connect in an even deeper way with the viewer. The film looks as if it was shot using only natural light, and I wouldn't be surprised to hear that it was. I know from watching a documentary about the film that they had essentially a two block radius to themselves during the shoot that was always "in character" so if they wanted to move a scene outdoors, they could do so without fear of ruining continuity. There's also no panning, tilting or zooming at all in the film, which is pretty remarkable for a 139-minute film, but I was amazed to see that the camera never pans, tilts or zooms, utilizing handheld almost exclusively.

It really says something for a film when someone comes out of retirement to work on it, and that's the case here with Visual Effects Supervisor Douglas Trumbull. He hadn't worked on a film since 1982's Blade Runner, yet he was approached by Malick to create practical effects for the universe creation sequence similar to what he had done some 45 years ago on 2001: A Space Odyssey. Malick was apparently unhappy with the solely computer generated effects and wanted them to have a more realistic feel, which Trumbull is able to create like no one else. There are behind the scenes videos on you tube (such as this one: that document the creation of these effects and they're remarkable in their practicality.

The parallels between this film and 2001 are striking: The use of classical music rather than a conventional score, non-linear storytelling, a prologue & epilogue of sorts that are more suggestive than straight-forward, limited use of dialogue, the list goes on. The Tree of Life is the only film that's ever been made that I feel comfortable comparing to 2001. They're poetic, meditative and up for interpretation; Neither film panders to the viewer, and trusts that you'll draw your own conclusions, whatever they may be. Malick is a director that has never conformed to any of the structural norms of filmmaking. His films all have a lyricism to them that makes them more like experiences than films. He's made five films in forty years, and while each of the films is unique in its story, they're all similar in their storytelling. He's been an admirer of nature and long shots of the environment and landscapes are always as much a character in his films as the actors.

Speaking of which, the actors here are all stellar. Brad Pitt is fantastic, as always, and he can make you hate him one minute and feel deeply sorry for him the next. His early scene where he regrets criticizing his now deceased son's page turning at church is particularly powerful, as is his first scene where he's informed of the death.

Jessica Chastain is also wonderful, an actress who really exploded this year, and with good reason. She plays the mother you wish you had, no matter how great your own mother was, she's a true saint as illustrated in the beautiful scene where she floats ethereally around a tree. Her natural grace on display in her body language, and the scenes where she plays with her sons as babies are especially moving. Hunter McCracken plays Jack as a boy, and he is a pure natural. His ease on screen is revelatory for someone who had never acted before, and he has several great scenes, my favorite of which is when he sneaks into the girls' house he's been admiring and rummages through her room, running off with one of her slips. Penn is also very good because he's a deeply expressive actor even without dialogue, and you can read his emotions anytime he's on screen.

As I said earlier, this is not a film for everyone, and it's one of the true love-it or hate-it films, but I have always loved those kinds of films for that very reason. Films like Magnolia, Requiem for a Dream, Apocalypse Now, 2001, & most recently Black Swan transcend being merely good films because they take such enormous risks, fly so boldly in the face of traditional wisdom, and go so far out on a limb that I can't help but love and admire them. If you don't like the film, I understand completely, but I would like to talk about why. Contrary to popular opinion, I enjoy engaging with people whom I have differences of opinion on, and I am always eager to debate challenging films like this. There is a lot to love about this film, and if you give yourself over to it, you'll recognize yourself and your childhood in there somewhere. And if not, I'd love to hear why…

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