My friends are not simple folks. Almost all of them are college graduates, intelligent (save for one or two of them, but I won't name names) and generally have a sophisticated taste in entertainment. But having just watched Terrence Malick's latest film The Tree of Life, an existential exploration of the constant battle between grace and nature, I am thankful I never dragged any of them to theaters to share in the experience. They would have hated it.
But I didn't.
The Tree of Life is a movie about a family of three boys and their relationships with each other. As the eldest son Jack (Hunter McCracken) ages, he struggles to find his place in the world as so many kids do, loving his graceful mother (Jessica Chastain) while loathing his more reactionary and authoritarian father (Brad Pitt). His father sees the world as a cruel and corruptible place and is trying to prepare his sons for such a world; as Jack grows up and begins to lose his innocence, he begins to understand.
But The Tree of Life isn't really about the family. It's about grace and nature, how they overlap and compete and make the world what it is. The family is but a vessel to explore this relationship. Off-putting for many audiences, the movie is buttressed by long sequences of the creation of life and the world - and the end of it - with Malick showing us the beginning of the universe, dinosaurs and other things most people don't expect from a Brad Pitt-starring "family drama."
In other words, if you like your movies straightforward and not at all interpretive, stay far away from The Tree of Life. Very, very far away.
If you visit the IMDB message boards, or any discussion about the movie, the comments range from "an amazing movie" to "the worst movie ever made." There is very little in between. The Tree of Life is the very definition of a love-it-or-hate-it film. You'll either get it or you won't, you'll either appreciate it or you won't.
One's opinion of the movie does not reflect the viewer's intelligence; where often it's so easy to look down upon people who "don't get it", I can completely relate to the broad masses who hated this movie or refused to watch it in the first place. It's not for everyone, and should be accepted as such.
But The Tree of Life is a pretty incredible movie. Beautiful, serene and mesmerizing, The Tree of Life is Malick's latest masterpiece. It's hard to put into words what works about this movie, because The Tree of Life isn't about words. It's about seeing and understanding and accepting what's shown on screen.
The acting is fine - relative newcomer Jessica Chastain received much praise for her performance here - but the movie is not about the acting. Sure, without Brad Pitt, Chastain and even Sean Penn (who spends the whole movie wandering around surreal landscapes), and especially Hunter McCracken, The Tree of Life would suffer, but the movie is so much larger than the actors and the characters they play. Much of the "dialogue" (more accurately, "monologue") is offered as narration, and often whispered narration; there is very little talking on screen.
The Tree of Life epitomizes the importance of editing. Though beautifully shot, the movie succeeds largely on the pitch perfect work by the editing team. The way the film is laid out makes it much more than its individual parts. The narration, the sequences of nature and the "regular" stuff work in harmony with one another to the point where it seems natural, almost basic, but to achieve such a feat is not easy. As a result, The Tree of Life is a constant, fluid entity, one that engages on a level few films can.
The Tree of Life is an incredibly well done film. Though I expect most of you stopped reading at "existential exploration", the movie is intellectually stimulating and yet requires no effort, only the ability to sit back and appreciate its ambition. It isn't for anyone. In fact, it isn't for most people. But for those remaining, it's a journey worth taking.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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