The Tree of Life
Terrence Malick’s existential film about life, death and the conflicting ways of living life is not for everyone. Although to be fair, audiences have never had a chance to witness anything like THE TREE OF LIFE until now. Some may argue that Kubrick attempted to tell a story in this manner or that Ingmar Bergman strived for this, but I can’t think of any director that has said so much in a film through the use of pacing, colors, imagery and editing than Malick has with THE TREE OF LIFE. Yes, there’s character development and important dialogue, but the film really isn’t about what happens on the screen as much as it is how it happens. Malick has used the film medium to tell a story in a way that’s never been done before.
There is a story sandwiched in-between the imagery of volcanic eruptions, flowing drops of water and yes, dinosaurs. The focus of the story is on a young Jack (played as an adult by a muted Sean Penn), who is coming to terms with the conflicting influences from his father’s (Brad Pitt) strong, cold demeanor and his mother’s (Jessica Chastain) soft, gentle love. What Malick does well is keep the tone in a constant state of conflict. One moment we witness a scene where Jack screams at his mother and the next he’s comforting a neighborhood boy struggling with his makeshift toys. Malick never allows the audience to get too comfortable with one way of life or the other and that allows us to feel the competing emotions within Jack.
But there’s so much more to this film than just a boy learning to establish his identity in the world. Malick has created a film that sneaks a peak at one insignificant person in the context of life, death and the entire universe. It’s a very existential concept and admittedly, one you’re going to have to study to see. Malick isn’t going to do the work for you and have a character stare at the screen and explain to you what’s going on. In other words, he doesn’t dumb it down and in this day and age of filmmaking, that’s probably one of the film’s greatest achievements.
The narration in the beginning and end by Jessica Chastain was the highlight for me and actually had me tear up a mere five minutes into the film. She explains the different ways of living life and touches on the influence God has on her and her family and while she explains, we get a sample of some of the beautiful imagery from Malick and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. All of Malick’s films are beautiful to the eye, but TREE OF LIFE is like a greatest hits collection of creative, breathtaking shots. Some shots are more impressive than others, but they work together as a collective whole to bring the film to life.
Very little actually transpires on screen and Malick cuts from one scene to another quickly and poses many deep and philosophical ideas on life that may be lost on the generation that’s actually eager to see another Saw movie. I was deeply moved by the film, even if Malick lost a little focus at times and got a little too carried away with the existential aspect. I think there’s only a very tiny portion of the population that’s going to appreciate Malick’s effort and it’s unfortunate that such a rare gem is going to be ignored by so many people. But for those that are eager to see a movie that takes the medium to a new place, TREE OF LIFE is a must-see.