Tree of Life – Mystic and Mysterious

By   |  July 13, 2011

I remember one day in class that the film professor warned the students of a daunting film we were about to undertake.  The title?  Koyaanisqatsi.  For the uninitiated, it is a film without any dialogue and pushes the boundary of storytelling with its mostly sole use of overhead photography of landscapes and cities.  Although at first it came off as tedious and grinding, the end result was simply astounding after realizing the power of the moving image told in severely unconventional ways.  In many ways, Koyaanisqatsi reminds me of Tree of Life’s ambition.  Malick attempts to craft a very bold and grand movie about life, childhood, and death using a mixture of artistic and conventional means in his storytelling.  Although some of his images and storytelling means are hard to follow and the path to his conclusion is not as sound as he believes, Malick does create one of the most unique films of the year that will be discussed for years to come.

Tree of Life follows Jack (Hunter McCracken), a young boy living in a small Texan town with two brothers, his kind mother (Jessica Chastain), and his stern father, Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt) in the mid-1950s.  The plot follows his joys and struggles of childhood that resonate to the present day as the adult Jack (Sean Penn) gets news that his younger brother has passed away.  The film becomes both a literal and spiritual journey through all aspects of life that centers on the small hometown they all grew up in.

The sorest issues I have with Tree of Life are in its periphery characters and its ambitious structure.  When viewing the film as a whole, Malick attempts to balance many sides of the plot from the multiple voiceovers to perspective shots that seem to give a sense that the plot is multi-faceted and it engages with strong characters on all sides.  However, many of these side characters are interestingly given such one-sided personalities compared to the richer main players of Mr. O’Brien and Jack.  Perhaps it is a commentary on the period’s culture and Malick’s focus on the father-son relationship, but I still felt a bit shortchanged when more was not done to make some of these other characters have more of a personality and say.  One of the most unfortunate roles cut by this was Chastain’s Mrs. O’Brien role which felt too simple for the contextual roles surrounding her and the whispers of a much more conflicting relationship that never came to fruition.

In addition, the grand scope and scale of the film takes it from evolution to the prehistoric to the present age in a back-and-forth swing, especially in the beginning and ending of the film.  Here, I feel that some difficulties arrive with the content provided.  Malick tells his narrative in a very sporadic fashion with some semblance of narrative build, beginning with the death of Jack’s brother in the present day.  When the film starts to take its ambition further by thinking of the life of the universe compared to the life of an individual, Malick’s grandiose expectation seems to override a complete thought and instead gives what seems to be a series of disparate ideas that do not always seem to match up.  The inclusion of the prehistoric era for instance thrust me out of being engaged to being more baffled by its inclusion.  The imagery seemed so intent on its symbolic and metaphorical value rather than creating a more enlightening and engaging relationship with its parts.  Instead of an ‘a-ha’ moment as many may have received from the ending of 2001: A Space Odyssey, there are more confusing ‘why’ moments that remove the viewer from the experience.

Yet these oddities do not prevent the ambitious film from creating a compelling central plot and stellar ideas from shining through.  The core narratives of a complicated father-son relationship and the loss of innocence are perhaps not entirely unique ideas but are presented in an intriguing fashion with compelling methods.  Even the middle section of the film, which is the most conventional, becomes an engaging character and thematic study.  This part recounts, in chronological order, the years as a child spent at the same house.  The backdrop creates an interesting evolution as the children grow older and learn the nature of vice and struggle with their strict father and his guidelines while the house and the trappings around them age slower than them.  This example is only one of many instances of how Malick loves to frame and compare his characters not only against each other but also against objects and scenery to evoke an emotion.

In addition, the characters of Jack and Mr. O’Brien are fascinating characters made of their era but still thematically relevant.  Is Mr. O’Brien truly a deplorable father, or is he a product of societal forces?  Does Jack’s upbringing mirror that of Mr. O’Brien and that of a child’s episode with the consciousness of sin?  These questions and many more are constantly pried upon and asked as the audience views both lives with much candor and intimacy.  From verbal abuse to a quiet moment at the organ, the scenes are fragmented but connected enough to form intriguing character studies.  All of this is mirrored and buffeted with some beautiful cinematography and imagery that paints not only a very grounded film but one that is fantastical and mystical.  Malick is not afraid to dissect a scene with a sudden inclusion of a random waterfall or a floating human dancing in the wind, and although again, these scenes sometimes are too disparate; when these abstract pieces work with the core purpose of the film, they are beautiful.  Perhaps that is the beauty of it all is that the finer points of the structure and core messages are big enough to be appreciated as a whole but vague enough to still interpret independently.  The final act especially is a section that I thought best collected all the film’s thoughts into a beautiful picture in which I may have not understood Malick’s overall intention but took in the fascinating narrative value and personal symbolic touch that is sure to differ from viewer to viewer.

Tree of Life is a film that will be debated for quite a while by film critics and film lovers.  Those that do not love film as an art will find the movie hard to digest and tedious, and indeed, even most cinephiles will have some trouble with the sometimes overpowering and overdone imagery and sporadic, non-linear structure.  However, there is real value in the overall film as Malick pours so much of his energy into creating a story not only about a boy’s growing-up story and the angst and hardships that come with it but a story framed about the human life and perhaps all of life in general.  When the film comes together and all of its symbolic imagery works in tandem, the Tree of Life is a vague but beautiful tapestry that will most likely be unlike any other film this year.  Just be prepared to give some time after the film is finished to try to understand it all.

Director: Terrance Malick
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 139 Minutes

The Wie muses: *** out of *****

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