Sunday, August 07, 2011

The Tree of Life (2011)

Image from IMP Awards

The Tree of Life (2011)

I think Terence Malick's The Tree of Life is mostly a brilliant film. It's also a hard one to explain. It's less a story and more a set of thematically and chronologically interconnected events and scenes. There is a narrative framework that bookends the film featuring Sean Penn as the adult version of the protagonist who on the anniversary of his brother's death is seemingly trying to find meaning in his life.

And that, basically, is a large part of what this film is - a look at what life is. And it goes right back to the beginning, the Big Bang itself that brings the universe into being. This stunning sequence goes through the development of stars and the formation of planets, in particular the Earth, and the beginnings of life in a primordial ooze through to the development and extinction of dinosaurs. Yes, there are dinosaurs in this film, though sadly they represent the film's low point.

Flash forward to 1950s USA and into the lives of a suburban family headed by the stern and authoritarian father (Brad Pitt) and the almost angelic mother (Jessica Chastain). We witness in condensed form the birth of three sons, their childhoods, their relationships with one another and their parents, whose marriage is slowly falling apart. This comprises the bulk of the film - just scenes of this family and the world around them. Make no mistake, this is unabashedly an 'arty' film with very little dialogue and copious lingering shots of people and plants and animals and beams of light.

I can think of no other film that captures the ineffable feeling of being a child and growing up like this one does. How Malick has done this almost purely with imagery is mind boggling - and the imagery on display here is beautiful and at times awe inspiring. While the specifics of 50s suburban America may not match many people's childhoods, the feeling of growing up, having parents and siblings and experiencing the world is a universal one that transcends culture and race and various other human divides, and this truth is brilliantly captured here.

It seems that the overriding theme of the film is the universal nature of life, and while there is a strong and overt 'spiritual' aspect on display, Malick presents the scientific truth of how we got here front and centre and makes it profound. We're insignificant in cosmic terms but at the level of individual lives we are part of something bigger and we're all bound together by fundamental things that we have in common. Much of this can seem a tad, well, cheesy, but one has to admire Malick for wearing his heart on his sleeve and going for broke when expressing himself.

The part of the film that doesn't work so well are the bookends featuring Sean Penn. They are there to give the film context but just don't approach the level of the rest of the film; there's also a concluding sequence that, while open to interpretation, does cross the boundary into religious territory in a way that feels too literal.

A major part of what makes 'Tree of Life' work is the performances, which are uniformly excellent. The three child actors are so good its easy to forget that you're watching a film. In terms of visuals  it's stunning, and the various pieces of classical music and score throughout make it aurally captivating as well.

This isn't a film everyone will like - it will try the patience of people who require their films to have a conventional narrative with problems to be solved and heroes to root for (quite a few people walked out of the cinema within the first 30 minutes). That's because it is, at the risk of sounding pretentious, a deep and contemplative film that tries to ponder the big questions in life. In a cinematic landscape littered with cartoonish CGI, adaptations, sequels, and prequels, it's a breath of fresh air that should be welcomed!

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