The Tree of Life Reviews
There are shades of Kubrick throughout, but ultimately, this is completely and originally Malick doing Malick. What is this film about? Well, everything, really. The creation of Earth and life on it, the human experience, and questions of very philosophical (mostly existentialism) and religious natures done in a very fractured, abstract, and allegorical fashion.
All of the above is primarily filtered through the growing up of Jack O'Brien, played as an adult by Sean Penn as he reminisces about growing up in a fractured family in Texas in the 1950s, where he is portrayed by newcomer Hunter McCracken and is raised by a very overtly kind and caring, yet cowardly mother (Jessica Chastain) and a rigid, very strict authoritarian father (Brad Pitt). The film mostly is set in the past, with flashes to Jack as an adult, but also interspersed are glimpses of the far past, namely with a jaw dropping 17 minute sequence chronicling in detail one explanation for life on Earth.
This is an abstract art film and nearly it's finest. It's probably the best example of strict formalism and impressionism that I can think of, as well as a superb example of cinema as art. This isn't a movie in the conventional sense, but a very stylistic and formalized piece of art. If you don't understand it, that's fine. Maybe we're not supposed to. As long as it makes us feel *something* or have some sort of reaction, whatever it may be, then it has succeeded.
The film is heavy on symbolism (a vast understatement), and is begging for detailed and lengthy discussions concerning religion and philosophy, and I'm okay with that. For the most part, I found myself quite engaged and on the film's wavelength. It's a very challenging picture though, especially to sit through as it is non-linear, leisurely paced, extremely light on a real plot or story, and also 138 minutes in length, even though the original amount of footage shot equals a staggering 8 hours.
I'm glad I saw this, and I enjoyed it a great deal, but I had my problems with it. Some of it really baffled me and made no sense, I did get fidgety at times (but as someone with ADHD, I think I managed extremely well), and the stuff with Sean Penn, though I love him and know that Malick had his reasons for that part of the film, really sticks out to me as something weak that doesn't really work. It seemed forced and nothing was really done with it.
What I did like or love though, where the formal elements of this thing: Malick trademarks such as sparse dialogue (but compensated by copious amounts of voice over), having nearly all of it take place outside, philosophical and spiritual themes, and nature playing a huge role, and gorgeous cinematography. Like they did on The New World, Malick and his DP made themselves adhere to a strict set of guidelines for shooting this film (look up the list on imdb if you want). The results are absolutely brilliant and this is one of the most beautiful and captivating films I've seen both in general, and how they utilized everything to get their message out. Malick apparently also issued a set of guidelines for theaters on how he wanted the film to be shown in order for audiences to receive what he considered to be the best way of seeing it.
I enjoyed the acting as well. Jessica Chastain gives a graceful (no pun intended) performance as the mother, and proves she can be more than just a good looker with her quiet reserve and nuanced turn. Brad Pitt shines as the rigid father who is more of a force of nature in the unpredictable way he goes about living his life and raising kids. Both parents do love their kids, but in different ways, as per their respective philosophies on life and how to live it. The breakout though is Hunter McCracken as the young Jack. If this kid is to have a film career, he may very well go quite far as evidenced by his layered performance that, for a newcomer is really quite something.
The music, all of it classical, is wonderful and perfectly captures the mood, tone, atmosphere, and essence of things. In conjunction with the visuals, this film creates an amazing A/V experience. The visuals and effects are pretty good as well, sometimes great. A mixture of effects were used, though some of it doesn't look quite as good as the others (some of the cgi dinosaurs, yes dinosaurs) .The film had like 4 or 5 editors or so, and it kinda shows because there's some much going on that it'd be quite a challenge for one person to take on.
I know this film wasn't intended for everyone, but even then, I think Malick could have truncated some of this down or at least had a slightly less reserved pace. As I said though, this perhaps was purposely supposed to be just what it is and everyone is left to their own devices to look at it how they will. I would like to think that multiple viewings might uncover more levels of understanding and depth, but perhaps not. That's not a bad thing necessarily, just something to note.
Perhaps I will revisit this someday, maybe see it in high definition on a large screen with an excellent stereo system, and with someone I could have a discussion about it with, because, let's face it, it's easier (at least for me) to talk about this movie than it is to write about it, and I'm sure I'm not alone. I won't force this upon anyone, but do think you should give it a try, even if you have more trouble with it than I, because stuff like this doesn't get made very often, and not enough people do what Malick does, both of these things being stuff that I think need to change.
We're talking the big picture here, and Malick asks the big question... that I don't feel he sufficiently answers the question, or even frames the question in the right way, is my assessment, and feel free to disagree. The question of course is "what's it all mean?" This all encompassing question of course needs delve into who we are as a species; who we "think" we are, and all the man made foibles hoisted upon us over centuries of fear based rhetoric (no matter how you slice it, we're talking "faith" here).
Putting aside issues of belief, what the film really has to offer is some stunning visuals and iconic imagery. The pace is glacial, yet that works well for the first half of the film as we're introduced to a young couple and then their first born, shown as a babe and later as a conflicted adult. There is nary a word spoken in this first half, other than a few spoken words of voice over and what appears to be the big message - the conflict between "nature" and "grace". At this point, since the film meanders like a drought inflicted stream, you have ample time to ponder the issue - and really, it's all in the interpretation and how your own beliefs taint your eye to what is being shown. Each image either resonates with the viewer, or is meaningless filler, depending on your background and upbringing - and that's the real problem with the film - since it is so open to interpretation, the film either has a deep meaning for you, or it's just nice eye candy - at least for the first half.
In the second half the film seems to move from the big show to a more "everyman" approach, showing a family and how each part is a part of a greater whole while shaping said parts in ways that may or may not be beneficial to those parts. I'm ok with this, but not in the way Malick chose to show us. By inferring that this family is ALL families (using some rather odd techniques that keep the narrative dysfunctional at best), I remained detached and not absorbed by the characters - which should be the goal in ANY film. I'm sure one could argue that the disjointed scenes of "growing up" and trying to figure out for yourself, not only your place in the family, but in the world around you, are fine examples of that "every" life - perhaps so, but my feeling is that this second act goes on way too long as the purpose is obvious early on and showing example after example just made me want to scream "Yeah, so? Get on with it!!"
Every time there seems to be an almost cohesive narrative you get some superfluous scene or back track which makes the entire second half seem more of a series of very short vignettes than a fluid film, which is unfortunate for the art of the film is wonderful as so many iconic images of a time a place are captured that you yearn for it all to mesh together.
As for the acting involved here - well, really there isn't any... yep, Sean Penn utters nary a word - just looks purposefully at the camera trying to convey a depth that the script doesn't amply explore. Sure, life's a bitch, and your upbringing perhaps wasn't the best - but fer chissakes, get over it!
Brad Pitt has little more to say as well, though some of his lines do have some import and are delivered in a straight forward fashion. No, this film is all about "looks" - those looks of grave importance as if saying "see, this film has deep meaning, can't you tell just by my look?" Sorry, not buying it, so, in spite of some wonderful photography I have to report that this film came across as puffed up and self important; and doesn't really have anything new or novel to say (as the final scenes of "souls" reconnecting on some barren beach proves, having seen that kind of scene many a time before).
Director: Terrence Malick
Summary: Brad Pitt and Sean Penn star in Terrence Malick's 1950s adventure about a confused man named Jack, who sets off on a journey to understand the true nature of the world. Growing up in the Midwest with two brothers, Jack has always been torn between his mother's guidance to approach everything he encounters with an open heart and his father's advice to look after his own interests. Now, Jack must find a way to regain purpose and perspective.
My Thoughts: "It's starts off like any other film.. But then it turns into a whole different film and for awhile I was confused thinking that I was watching the nature channel, maybe I had accidently turned my t.v. ... But then the actors come back in and it gets interesting again.. Don't get me wrong, the film is beautiful and well made. BUT, the film is sooo long. I mean checking the clock can you be serious it still has an hour to go long. When the actor's were on the screen they captivated me, but I was thrown off with all the nature stuff. It seemed to go on forever.. Got a bit boring. Beautiful, but boring. But I got the message and its a wonderful movie. I just wish it didn't run so long and there was more acting and character developement."
I get it; it's an artistic movie that gives viewers an experience of emotions, not provocative storytelling. Then again, "The Tree of Life" leans so much towards trying to be artistic that the movie is difficult to watch. "Oh, you're just like all the mindless, ADHD Americans that need an explosion every 5 seconds, huh?" No. If I'm gonna hafta watch a movie and then say, "Oh shoot, this is a movie that I need to focus and surgically pick out the symbolism behind every knick knack," then it ruins the experience. What I'm trying to say is that every movie needs a balance. "The Tree of Life" is bloated with art -- skimp on plot...
What I will say that is great about the movie is how pure and focused it is in its message, theme, and tone. And though if one were to handpick out one scene, it may seem directionless and airy, the film knows what it is trying to do. Visuals are fantastic and Malick's approach to address and express huge components to human existence/life is extravagantly simple yet unlike any other movie.
But for someone that loves artistic movies and edgy visuals, "The Tree of Life" was an absolute bore that brought no sort of fulfillment of substance to either be entertained, entranced, or moved by. It's not my type of movie. Don't hate -- I know there are going to be those much smarter and sensitive to be thrusted into its beauty and atmosphere but it's definitely not gonna be the average movie goer.
The film suggests that there are two main outlooks to life: nature and grace. Nature is to be selfish, to blame others for your shortcomings, to think of your own pleasure and your own goodwill. Grace is to accept the life that has been given to you and do your best to make it wonderful. Brad Pitt parents his children more so through nature, and Jessica Chastain parents them through grace. But this isn't just a film about growing up.
This film ponders human life in relation to all of existence. It is as if all the millions upon millions of years that it took for life to evolve were all leading up to this moment, as if all human evolution is waited as heavy as the existence of the universe. We will continue to evolve until the end of time, and then what? The story progresses through shots of even the most insignificant of things, but it is these insignificant things that make up our humanity.
Terrence Malick made two great films in the 1970s. He then disappeared for twenty years and from what I understand, he did a lot of traveling. Whatever he learned or discovered has been reflected deeply in his past three films, but none more so than The Tree Of Life. This is a film that reflects on growth, evolution, God, time, space, and what it means to live. It's a celebration of everything that is life, from birth to death. Because really, what is more important to you than this moment in time, and the moments about to come.
Amazing Film! Great story, astounding cinematography and wonderful acting. Nominated for an Oscar for Best Picture. This film is not for everyone and I assure you will like this film or you won't, there is no middle point here.
The impressionistic story of a Texas family in the 1950s. The film follows the life journey of the eldest son, Jack, through the innocence of childhood to his disillusioned adult years as he tries to reconcile a complicated relationship with his father (Brad Pitt). Jack (played as an adult by Sean Penn) finds himself a lost soul in the modern world, seeking answers to the origins and meaning of life while questioning the existence of faith.
You may ask yourself why a so late review on The Tree of Life. Aside from some personal matters I have to say that when I had the chance to write it I felt like there's so many things to write about this movie and that a shorter review will not be a fair exposition. Now, someone reminded me that I still have not written any review for this film and I was shocked to realize it so I instantly grabbed my pen and started to scratch my paper.
How do you start a review for The Tree of Life, a movie that deals with so many themes, with so many details, with a great amount of symbolism, and with so much emotion... Basically, like the movie itself, if you start with a basic beginning then your review wouldn't make any sense. You have to start with the middle, which is the core of the movie and not with the literal story. What I see as being the core of the movie is evolution, the showdown between matter and antimatter, the unification of body and spirit, the world of physical and spiritual, the way of nature and the way of grace. This is such a wide thoughtful theme that it's impossible to describe it in few words. What Malick is presenting us is the evolution of our universe thus the evolution of humans as well. Both of these paths are represented by Malick in space and in time, in space and on Earth. Malick puts his images in contrast one with another. He uses the cosmic events that were the pillars of evolution to describe life on Earth. He sends a message about both our insignificance in the grand scale of things ("Where were you when I laid the earth's foundation?") and our importance to Earth and ourselves and to a possible God.
Malick's film can be analyzed and can be given a thousand interpretations. You could take for example, the literally interpretation that this film follows the story of a Midwestern family in the 1950s. You are given images of joy and happiness of Mr. and Mrs. O'Brien (Brad Pitt & Jessica Chastain) and their sons. You see birth but you also see death. You can also see how could these moments change your beliefs and your entire attitude. In the brute state of the narrative, Mr. O'Brien represents the way of nature. He's hard-headed, he's physically strong, he shows few signs of pain even when he has to deal with the death of his son. He thinks a man would only succeed in this world if he's tough. A man that punishes severely his kids when they do something wrong. Even though he might seem a bad person, he actually isn't. He cares for his kids and his love for them is as great as their mother's. He's that man that forces his kids to go to church because he's a true christian. He's warm inside and he knows that he might produce suffering to other but he think that that is the only way you could survive in this world. Mrs. O'Briend on the other hand represents the way of grace. She's gentle, she's always relieved, she loves playing with her children, she's also a woman that believes in God but doesn't use the common tools of appreciating God. For example, she's the opposite of her husband. When he tells their kids to go to church she is against the idea of forcing them. So she's a mother that dedicates her life to her kids not only by being there for them and playing with them but also to assure their freedom of choice. In few words she's a fighter for the free will were the father isn't. Now in times of death, she suffers greatly, she's collapsing into a world of doubt and she starts to question God. Why did He made that decision? Now before we'll go further you have notice a thing here. While the father represents the way of nature, he has the grace in him. And while the mother represents the way of grace, she has the nature in her. Therefore the idea, that one cannot exist without the other.
Now what Malick does when she's questioning God is to show us this long beautifully poetic sequence of the creation of both the Universe and Earth. He's giving an answer. He's simply implying that one death created by an accident in the middle of all these things that happen in this universe is actually the way the nature works. He's not responsible for it because he is about bigger things than the life of one person. It's a really understandable idea that many christians never think of. It's easy to judge the Creator when you don't really understand what He stands for. That is what Malick is presenting us. But the movie doesn't stop here. We also get to see one of O'Brien's son, Jack (Sean Penn), in his adult state. A man that still mourns his passed brother, a man that inherited his father's nature. A man that is surrounded by tall and sharp buildings. A man that leaves in a cold cube of glass. He's blaming his dad for his current state and dreams about his mother's grace. He wants to achieve that second of peace but he cannot do it until he opens himself to the way of grace, until spiritually he frees himself from the jail that he's locked in. That's where the ending of the movie comes. Because all-along the film, we are given clues of why Jack ended up more like his father than his mother. But the ending shows us two things. Cosmically it shows us the end of times on Earth, spiritually it shows us a possible frontier at the end of our time.
The cinematic experience at the end of the film is heart-breaking. It's so emotional, so full of symbolism, that it's impossible for you to understand everything from the first viewing. In the end, Jack rediscovers the way of grace by meeting his little brother, his mother, and his father at the frontier I was talking about. He becomes free with the help of a simple vision or the truth itself. It's hard to explain what really happens with a perfect accuracy because there's no such thing in The Tree of Life. And that's the beauty of it. The literal story is so rich and complex in symbolism that you almost forget that there's a bigger story that is the actual point of the film. That being the possible existence of a God, and the unification of the physical and spiritual world, the importance of both science and concept of God.
The complexity of this is as challenging probably as 2001: A Space Odyssey's ending because we have less proofs of what is really happening and we are given the right to choose what we believe we just saw. And isn't that the point? Because that's exactly what God wants. If Malick had a clear message then the movie would have failed from the beginning. Terrence Malick is responsible for one of the most important movies of our time. It's masterpiece and it only falls short because of the movie's possible length and staleness for some. It's not really a movie that everyone would like. But so was 2001. So is Blade Runner. These are movies that are not made to satisfy people but to spark something in the mind of those that love them.
Emmanuel Lubezki's work is impeccable. If this doesn't win the Oscar for Best Cinematography I will quit watching the Oscars. It would be one of the worst choices the Academy has done from it's inception to this day. His choice of natural lightning, the beautiful color palette, his framing is breathtaking because every second of this film tells a story. That's why it's so impossible to really review this movie without writing the god damn Bible. And on top of that what Alexandre Desplat succeeds in this film is the epitome of musical storytelling. Not only his original work is amazing but his choice of music from Berlioz to Gorecki is fascinating. I haven't a scene in this film where the cinematography and the music wouldn't fit the story perfectly. The performances are also top notch. Brad Pitt gives a far better performance than in Moneyball and Jessica Chastain created such a believable character, no wonder why she's my pick for this year's actress of the year.
After The Thin Red Line, Terrence Malick comes back with another masterpiece that defies the laws of cinematography, music, and storytelling. The Tree of Life is that important because my review could mean absolute sh*t to someone while it may be the best interpretation for another. The Tree of Life is that good because daring to write a short essay reviewing the film is an actual insult to the genius of Terrence Malick. Some said that this movie's purpose isn't to make sense because it's pure poetry. If that's the case, then poetry is my soul. I loved The Artist. I thought and still think that is an amazing film and I wouldn't be upset if The Artist will take home the Academy Award for Best Picture. However, The Tree of Life winning that award would mean justice for all those years when the Academy screwed up.
Technical Execution: 10
Replay Value: 9.5
On the plus side of the ledger are the story of the main setting, the fifties Texan suburban family and their pursing of the American Dream in a time of great social upheaval. Brad PItt gives his best screen performance as the loving, domineering dad with anger management issues. Jessica Chastain plays the earth mother of the family and Hunter McCracken as young Jack their son are all superb, and they do it with very spare lines of dialogue and silences.
The visual panache is a jolt of caffeine, with amazing sweeping dolly and hand held shots, accompanied by a fantastic beautifully chosen classical score with romantics like Brahms, Mahler, and Smetana and 20th century greats like Gorecki.
On the debit side is an almost pointless flash forward with Sean Penn as adult Jack, an architect wandering around confused in a soulless steel and glass world. It's interesting to see Malick shoot his first urban contemporary scenes ever, but they do not have much emotional resonance. There is a fantasy sequence where Penn reunites with his dead parents on a beach, that's like a bad scene from the last season of Lost.
Also in the red column are some major flash WAY backs with the big bang theory (not the wacky sitcom, the actual beginning of the universe) and dinosaur fights. I won't say these add nothing to the overall impact, they are beautifully shot and executed. Still, they take us away from the main interest of the film, Brad Pitt and the psycho drama of his struggling family. I don't even know what their point is, other than the obvious: life has always been a struggle, yet nothing matters, because we are insignificant in the great sweep of time, and soon we will be forgotten, just like those fighting dinosaurs. Don't sweat the small stuff, like having an abusive dad like Brad Pitt.
If you have the patience to sit through Tree of LIfe's over the top tendencies, and humorlessness, it is a true work of art, albeit a challenging one. It will be remembered when many of the its fellow academy award nominees have long since faded from the collective conscious.