The Tree of Life (2011)

Written & Directed by Terrence Malick

I am of the opinion that the secrets and meaning of the universe are not meant to be known. The pursuit of this knowledge is wasted time, time which we have so little of while we inhabit the Earth. I don’t know what happens when we die, or if there is a Heaven or a Hell. I don’t know how life began, if there is a God or a Devil. I certainly do not know why things happen the way they do. Why good people die and bad people live. But people love to dwell on these questions. I basically just try to live my life in the now and not think about these things. However, Mr. Terrence Malick definitely thinks about these things. And when he makes a film as contemplative, beautiful, reflective, and pertinent as The Tree of Life, even I have to stop for a minute and think about where I have come from, and where I stand in the world today.

This is a review that is 3 or 4 years in the making, just ask my friends. When I first got into movies a few years ago, Terrence Malick was one of my first obsessions, and since then he has become my favorite filmmaker. His films are not always the easiest to take in. Reflecting the shy nature of Malick in real life, his films are quiet and reflective, terms others may call boring, but I call inspired and beautiful. He has only ever released 5 films over a near 40 year span, so when I learned of this fifth film, I was so excited that I knew I would be there to see it as soon as I could. And I let all my friends know that this would be the best film ever! Well, at least my most anticipated release of my lifetime.

The film’s plot can be simply put as the goings on of a Texas family in the 1950s. Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain are the parents and Hunter McCracken (Jack), Laramie Eppler and Tye Sheridan play the three boys of the family, with Sean Penn playing Jack in the present. So yes, the plot can be stated simply, but when played out in the film, one discovers something else entirely. The film is so abstract and complex, it would be difficult to describe here with words. And I would be doing a disservice to do so anyway. You should just watch the film.

First just let me say that this is probably not Malick’s best film, though I have only seen it once so that opinion may change. But for starter’s, there are a few things here that are unnecessary. One will be blatantly obvious to all those who see the film, but I almost want to defend that sequence. True, the story would be more taut and better told perhaps without it, but its inclusion means that we as the audience get to witness the musings of Malick on screen, and for that extended period of time, get to witness something that is altogether beautiful and remarkable, even if it does not directly relate to the story, because it does directly relate with exactly what Malick is trying to say. And for that reason he, and the sequence of which I speak, should be applauded.

Again, I want to reiterate just how abstract this film is, with the previously discussed sequence being the best example. This is not a film one treads into lightly. No, one must come ready to experience this film, as that is just what it is, an experience. Malick has crafted a very personal and a very deep film with some very weighty themes and elements. Religion is obviously a very big theme in the film, as is the struggle between nature and grace, as is directly stated in the beginning of the film. I could continue to analyze the many themes of the film, but then it would feel more like a critique than a review, which is not what I want to do.

As always, the visual element of the film is astounding. Malick knows how to make a pretty picture and director of photography Emmanuel Lubezki certainly helps in this regard. In addition, pretty much everything else technically about this film is flawless. The special effects are pristine as is the set design and costumes. But what I was really amazed by was the music score composed by Alexandre Desplat. The score is so beautiful and melds so seamlessly into the story, along with the classical music soundtrack. I mentioned in a review of Malick’s Days of Heaven that I could watch the film without dialogue and still be amazed at it, and I definitely want to express the same sentiment for this film.

I knew this review would be long, there was nothing I could do about that, especially when the film itself supplies so much conversation fodder, which explains the great conversation I had about the film with my mother after we exited the theater. I understand that as a Malick fan I may be slightly biased, but I also think that I am a Malick fan because he makes amazing films, so in that regard my opinion of this film is simple: it’s a great movie. People will disagree and this is a difficult film to take in and process, which is why I plan on seeing it at least once more in the theater. The film is titled The Tree of Life, and what a fitting title when it is both extremely religious as well as just as confusing and cryptic as life itself. Malick goes places that few filmmakers dare to go, and if audiences are willing to follow, I assure you there are treasures of cinematic delight to be found.

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