Movie Review: The Tree of Life

 The Tree of Life

Any review I could possibly give for Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life will fall short.  I have neither the vocabulary nor the intellect to analyze this work of art in any meaningful way… all I will be able to do is to express my feelings after having seen it yesterday afternoon.  I was going to sit down at my computer the moment I got home and bang out my first impressions… the emotional impact I was still lingering in… hoping to capture the strange new outlook I found my mind dwelling in after walking into the daylight, but I didn’t.  Instead, I stopped at the community pool where my daughters were having a swim evaluation, which I believe may have been the point of the film.

I cannot describe The Tree of Life… there is nothing to describe necessarily.  There is no story… no narrative, only life.  Whether that is life in terms of the beginnings of the universe, cellular life and it’s spark here on Earth in the primordial ooze, the rise of dinosaurs and their eventual demise (yes… there are dinosaurs in this film), a family coming of age in the 1950’s in Waco, Texas, the life of a mother, a wife, a husband and father, a son… a man.  The narrative is emotion.  The story is duality.  The tale is pain, aggression, grace and love.  All, part of the same story.

I suppose for the sake of understanding the basic structure, imagine if Stanley Kubrick had decided to create this film instead of 2001: A Space Odyssey.  Much of The Tree of Life is dialogue free.  There is narration from, either the mother’s perspective (Jessica Chastain), the father’s (Brad Pitt) or the eldest of three sons, Jack (Hunter McCracken… later to become Sean Penn).  We are never at any one point rooted in any particular moment in their lives… the film shows us an early scene that is very telling, but doesn’t happen in the time we may assume… it’s at least a decade down the road.  But even that is only hinted at.  Nothing is overt… only hinted… glimpsed through the eyes of a child, of a man, of a mother, a wife, a husband or a father.

If I had seen this masterwork twenty years ago at nineteen, I would have appreciated and understood the perspective of the young son.  Ten years ago, I could have found the film making techniques and their application phenomenal… it would have had an emotional resonance, not so much for what it or I was, but for what I could have been… for what I was.  Today, I felt this film as a son, a father, a man and a husband.  This is not the work of a man looking forward, it is facing backwards and all that entails.  The regrets, the joys, the fragmented memories of childhood and it’s attendant insecurities and angst.  But it’s the love that stands out… and I can’t help but feel if The Tree of Life is anything, it is love.  Not about love… it is love.

I would go on about the performances, but I can’t see the point.  At no point did I ever feel I was viewing a performance.  I was viewing life in a time that came before me yet informs so much of our current lives in 21st century America.  A time that my father straddled, and his father was to be found.  Men had a place, women had theirs… and children were dealt with accordingly.  And it is within the relationship of Jack to his father that the emotional core of this film is centered.  The choice between the way of grace, taking after his beautiful and kind mother… or the way of nature, Jack’s father.  Brad Pitt carries the weight of a generation’s regrets and ambitions in scenes of such incredible tenderness and emotion while at the same time evoking the bursts of violence and frustration that every father can relate to and understand.

I never once found myself sobbing during this film… but my face was often damp.  It was an almost voyeuristic experience… looking into other people’s lives, probably a certain amount of autobiographical information throughout, through the eyes of someone else.  From the perspective of a young boy filled with jealousy and a lack of understanding… looking up at a stern father… looking into a mother who offers so much beauty and joy.  The stillness of despair… the quiet resolution of regret… of doing what you believe best for those you love, and the mistakes you make.   And most of this conveyed wordlessly.

I cannot recommend this film for everyone.  Not that I don’t believe it to be one of the finest works of art put onto film, I absolutely do… but because I don’t imagine most people will accept what Malick is doing here before calling it boring or pretentious.  When it screened at Cannes for the first time (before winning this year’s Palme d’Or), the ending was greeted with boos and applause.  I did hear some people saying they found it dull when we were exiting the theater… but overall, the crowd (it was sold out at a 12:10pm show) was dead silent.  As I left, I found myself seeing everything differently… the battle between nature and grace resolved, and all that was left in its place was love… of feeling as though something had happened within me as opposed to having just been a spectator.  The Tree of Life felt so much less a film and so much more an opportunity to get it.  Did I get all that was intended?  I doubt it… as I mentioned, I don’t have the language or the intellect to do justice to what I have seen/felt/understood.  I do, however, believe I felt it.

Half an hour after the end of the film, I was driving back home ruminating on what I would write… and found myself crying in the car.  Again, not tears of sadness… not tears of joy… tears of having been granted a gift perhaps… which is why I stopped at the pool and watched my daughters swim.  They are my tree of life.

I may not know what it was… but I know I liked it,
Cornelius J. Blahg

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