The Tree of Life (2011) Directed by Terrence Malik
It's like a dream. It's also a lot like Kubrick at times. It's widely pretentious and deeply religious. It features Brad Pitt (enough to turn me off the film) and reveals a serious crush on leading lady Jessica Chastain, whose mother-of-the-world presence dominates so much. Sean Penn appears fleetingly and we even have dinosaurs. Yes, it's the latest Terry Malik fim – the mystery man of cinema. But whisper it "this film gives a new form to narrative". Actually, that's not so true, because Malik has been here before, specifically in the last hour or so of his excellent war picture, The Thin Red Line.
The Tree Of Life has been such a divisive picture with the public, if not so with the critics. This is certainly bold cinema. There is a creation of life as we know it segment with dinosaurs (I'd have liked more of them) that pays serious homage to Kubrick's 2001. It's quite stunning and in some ways maybe the highpoint of the film. But The Tree Of Life is a film for the cinema (apparently I turned down the opportunity to see it Astrid informed me). I'm sure the small screen does it no justice, even though I could still marvel at the film's beauty. Malik gives us nature and his most personal story: family and adolescence. The editing between nature and suburban 1950's life (Waco, Texas actually) is relentless and slowly forms some kind of coherent remembrance of Malik's growing up. There is father (Pitt) and mother (Chastain) and two other brothers the young Jack (Malik/later played by Penn) has to negotiate on this rite of passage. What impressed me is the fever dream like intensity. It's relentless, it's not a part of the film, it's the whole picture.
This is still the same man who was behind Badlands and Days of Heaven. You recognize the same portrait of nature from those films. But the fast paced editing owes much to mid-period Godard, even if Malik's version creates a cohesive and poetic narrative. Brad Pitt doesn't do too much other than brood and be dangerous, so he's OK here (and not used much). Hunter McCracken as the young Jack fills the screen with his impressive presence and his teenage rebellion. But there is wonder here. This movie looks supreme. Malik tackles the Big Issues (life/death) and really doesn't say anything that spoke to me. But with the beautiful intensity he creates, it's not only a reminder of our taken-for-granted surroundings, it's a wonderful visual and aural experience. In the mainstream, there is nothing like this.
A short history of Nick, Astrid and The Tree of Life:
At first Nick starts talking about the film and its reviews plus the director. Astrid wants to see it while Nick would rather see something else.
The film reviews are everywhere and the movie runs for a long time in the Finnish theater.
During the last weeks of its cinema showing Astrid suggests to Nick they see it in the cinema.
Nick says it's too tedious and religious and he'd rather see the new Clint (Eastwood).
Astrid gives up. (She thinks to herself: what does it matter if the movie is religious, how intolerant...)
Finally, Nick comes home from London a year after the film was last discussed carrying The Tree of Life the DVD. Upon finishing the film Nick loves it and Astrid is angry. She googles Malik immediately.
So things don't always go as expected and presupposed even with Nick's and my taste in cinema.
I know I should have loved The Tree of Life and I did find much to admire in it. But in the end my admiration flows towards the technical aspects of the film, while something hollow gnaws in the middle. The Tree of Life uses images wonderfully – it makes me remember how lucky I am to have eyes and vision. The film cuts from scene to scene visualizing very authentically what it is like to rememer, have flashbacks and to wander from thought to thought. The first half of the movie is full of wonder for life and this planet. The human story develops and has tension and potential.
At some point after the middle of the movie I begin to fear for Malik and the ending of the film. I begin to see that he will not be able to negotiate himself out of this without somehow referring to god. Yes, I realize that someone else's presupposition, the one I was so willing to overcome, is lurking and making me uncomfortable. Indeed, the ending of The Tree of Life is angering. We get a sneak-peak into heaven, we see dead people...also, what really annoys me personally, is that Malik has to have the mother of the family appear as a saint all through the film and into her own death – the usual idealization. The big structures in religion (or philosophy?) stand tall and just the same as ever in the Western canon. What helped me in dealing with my anger and disappointment was to realize that The Tree of Life was a very personal film for Malik. It was his own childhood story merged with his fascination of how this planet has become what it is now. To understand The Tree of Life through autobiography is to see his reliance on a god as a necessary way for him to deal with the loss of his brother (and mother).