THE TREE OF LIFE
Directed by Terrence Malick
It took me some time to make peace with myself and finally get down to watching Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. Having seen the trailer and having read some comments and reviews, I knew this was not something I would appreciate – let alone enjoy. When someone said ‘ambitious’, I heard ‘pretentious’. When someone said ‘overwhelming’, I heard ‘overblown’. When someone said ‘bold’, I thought what was meant was ‘boring’. And now, having spent almost two and a half hours in the company of this film, I have to say that The Tree of Life is indeed all those things: ambitious, pretentious, bold, boring… But an artistic statement so compelling and so powerful, you find yourself most pleasantly crumbled.
There are certain films you admire and love not for the story, not for the plot, but for the general feeling and overall impression. Cronenberg’s adaptation of William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch was hallucinatory and all over the place – but is there a better film about writing? Equally, you might get badly lost amid the meditative, slowly paced textures of The Tree of Life – but I just can’t imagine a more beautiful and credible depiction of the process of growing up.
There’s not much plot to speak of here. We start with the 60’s, with an American family receiving a telegram notifying them of the death of their son. After the initial scenes of grief and despair the film dissolves into a series of flashbacks (mostly), foreshadowings (particularly abstract, with Sean Penn) and breathtaking images of the creation of the Universe. Speaking of the latter, it’s easy to mock and dismiss all those microbes, dinosaurs and volcanoes, but the effect is hypnotic.
The largest portions of the film are devoted to the aforementioned American family and, most notably, the formative years of three sons. You see the world, engrossing and hostile, seething around Jack, the eldest boy, and his two brothers. This world is inhabited by his authoritative, religious father (Brad Pitt), his calm, caring mother (Jessica Chastain) and lots of those strange men you see on the street, desolate houses with God knows what inside, beautiful girls you find vaguely appealing, etc. It’s fascinating to recognize and relive it all one more time.
The film features brilliant cinematography and great, effective choice of classical music. The acting is good, too, no question there, but The Tree of Life is first and foremost a director’s film. And a complete triumph at that. Artistic statements of this scope are a rarity these days, so for all its pretentiousness and slightly excessive length, this experience should be cherished. Mainly because The Tree of Life has something so few of 2011’s films have: catharsis.