Review: The Tree of Life

Bold? Brilliant? Banal? Boring?

“The point of diving in a lake is not immediately to swim to the shore, but to be in the lake, to luxuriate in the sensation of water. You do not ‘work the lake out’ – it is an experience beyond thought.”  – John Keats (Ben Whishaw) in “Bright Star”

It’s been over two days since I saw “The Tree of Life,” and I still find myself reluctant to do much more than casually drift along in Terrence Malick’s meditative flow of images and emotions. “The Tree of Life” is not a film that is meant to be reviewed so much as to be felt, considered, and discussed. Attempting to speak authoritatively on “The Tree of Life” is like trying to pick up a handful of sand: the more you try to tighten your grip and contain the whole, the more bits and pieces slip away from you. Forcing concrete meaning into every scene or sequence removes the satisfaction of simply letting the film carry you where it will.

For instance: somewhere amongst the scads of achingly beautiful shots in “The Tree of Life,” I was particularly struck by the lively shadows of two young boys flashing across pavement. I thought of Plato’s Cave, of the flickering shadows that most of us (save those enlightened few who break free of their chains; not to get pompous or anything, there, huh, Plato?) are doomed to perceive as reality. I thought of film, of these shimmering images that are inherently not what they represent – the projection of a cat on a screen is not, after all, a cat. Yet, for at least two hours or so, we are willing to accept those images in some fashion as “real.” Do we need something to be “real” in order for it to have meaning, for it to be somehow relevant to ourselves?

Wait…I feel like I’ve wandered off topic here. See, “The Tree of Life” tends to do things like that. Terrence Malick’s latest opus is philosophical, metaphysical, spiritual, impenetrable, frustrating, grandiose, ostentatious, poetic, pretentious, bold, brash, bewildering and beguiling. In other words, your mind will go all over the place. There are times when you will be convinced it is the greatest film you have ever seen. There are times when you will be fed up with Malick’s elliptical, emotional method of storytelling. There are times when you will remind yourself, “wait a minute, were there really dinosaurs in this movie?”

Yes, there were. That part comes somewhere in the middle of a ballsy sequence essentially recording the formation of the universe and the evolution of life on this planet. Planets float in the void, volcanoes erupt, and indeed, dinosaurs even scrabble around for a minute or two. If you’re thinking about “2001: A Space Odyssey,” don’t – it’s more “Fantasia” than sci-fi. In fact, I don’t know how critic after critic is getting away with the Kubrick comparison; OK, sure, there’s some cosmic finagling and classical music and such, but Kubrick was never this concerned with spiritualism. The better comparison for “The Tree of Life” is to the great theologian filmmakers, Andrei Tarkovsky (“Andrei Rublev,” “Solaris”), and Ingmar Bergman, who tackled the great question of God’s presence (or lack thereof) in our lives. Malick’s film opens with a passage from Job, and there is much of that unfortunate man’s beleaguered spirit in the whispered pleas of the characters’ voice-over narration. Where Malick has far more in common with Tarkovsky than Bergman is that we do get the sense that there is something listening on the other end.

But I have wandered off the point again. What I am trying to get at is, Malick’s weaving, associative visual style builds more around emotion and impression than any tangible narrative. Each viewer will get something different from their own experience, from their own threads of thought (in that way, I was reminded of Chris Marker’s “Sans Soleil,” a mind-numbingly obscure film that nevertheless bores its way into your brain like no other; or at least, like no other until now). For instance, my mother apparently saw womb imagery EVERYWHERE in “The Tree of Life.” My testosterone-clouded brain apparently missed much of this. Not that I doubt her at all; after all, Malick’s vision of life, death, creation and devastation would logically fit with repetitive symbolism of birth and nurturing. That just wasn’t what I happened to be thinking about at the time. I think instead I was considering Malick’s counter-intuitive juxtaposition of nature and the benevolent force he calls “grace.” Modern viewers are so accustomed to the idea of nature as something beautiful and positive, we forget the implications of such an overwhelming, selfish power. Again, Tarkovsky would be proud of this little reminder that we don’t use the phrase “force of nature” for nothing.

Where was I going next? Oh yes, the storytelling. Malick has always had a preternatural ability to coax strong, naturalist performances out of the most surprising places (see: Richard Gere, “Days of Heaven”). Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain, Sean Penn and newcomer Hunter McCracken are extraordinary, not because they “tell a story with so few words;” what story is there to tell? These are not characters, they are archetypes. They are even mega-archetypes: they are humanity. An entire universe for these three to fill, but they paint with fine strokes instead of desperately thrashing about to cover the canvas.

If you were absolutely forced to break “The Tree of Life” down to genre specifications, you would call it a tale of lost innocence: the innocence of McCracken’s character Jack, of mankind, of the audience, of existence. But then what do we make of that Job reference? And what is that mysterious attic room? Who are those women standing by Chastain’s side? Is this the afterlife? Was that paradise? What was the world built on, nature or grace?

I don’t know. Malick’s tone poem raises questions and connections that I can only begin to fathom. But I still want to swim around in it for a while.

Now playing in theaters.

Verdict: 4 out of 4 stars

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Review: The Tree of Life

  1. Elaine

    I already expressed my feelings about your “surprise” quite vocally on Facebook. The other comment I will make is your description of nature as “selfish.” Please explain. 🙂

  2. Yeah, using the word “selfish” there makes much more sense once you see the film, I think; as I said, his perception of nature runs somewhat counter to our usual notions. I mean “selfish” in the way it rolls over everything in its path, swallowing up people and things without a second thought. We may rhapsodize and glorify nature, but nature doesn’t care about us.

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