Terrence Malick knows exactly what he’s doing and he takes his time doing it, while remaining out of the spotlight. I find that extremely admirable. What has always struck me about his films is how holistic they are. We, the audience, tap into the psychologies of each character (including the character that is the environment), hearing what they think and experiencing what they remember. While his filmography has taken us from the founding of the New World to WWII, his thematic elements of character and nature remain consistently powerful. Interestingly enough, almost all of his films have actually divided audiences and critics upon initial viewings. However, as time goes on, they are revisited and deemed to be some of the best that have ever been made. The Tree of Life is no different. So far, some critics have labeled it as a pretentious, shattered mess. I can only guess what the overall opinion will be in a few years. Perhaps it will have changed. Perhaps it will go down in the history books as the first directorial or best picture win that any Malick film has ever received.
The Tree of Life explores the minds of a simple family as they deal with the grief of loosing a son / brother. They raise questions such as “what is the meaning of it all?” which inspires a cosmic journey from the beginning of time to the end, hesitating during the early moments of the family. The universe and more is meditated upon within these frames.
Right off the bat, I will say that this is the most genuine film I have ever seen. The emotions of childhood are so perfectly reflected in the three young boys (Hunter McCracken, Laramie Eppler, and Tye Sheridan) that it’s almost impossible to believe that this is not a documentary about an actual family. These characters are as real as they get. Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain, who play the father and mother, knock their performances out of the park in a similar fashion, but it’s less striking to see adults cash in a phenomenal performance as it is to see young children do the same. But something must have resonated with these people as the three kids apparently send Jessica Chastain mother’s day cards, despite the principle photography of the film being completed several years ago.
It’s not only the characters that feel so genuine, it’s the environment as well. Life in the 50’s is so intensely realized here that I became lost in that world. At one point, I noticed the neighborhood church in the distance and felt a surge of memories, as if I had spent my entire childhood going to that exact building every sunday with these people, even though I never went to church as a child. The places and the people had come to life inside my own experience. And that, I believe, is quite special.
The idea of meditation is critical to understanding this film. It contains no typical narrative, instead choosing to be a stream of consciousness that allows the viewer’s mind to contemplate. Questions are raised here in response to the grief that the family is enduring, but answers remain elusive. After all, there is no sixth stage of grief, being perhaps “epiphany.” Instead, the stages end at “acceptance.” This will undoubtably frustrate some viewers. Modern hollywood is not dominated by artistic films, and must therefore be approached with care and respect. I believe that everyone should see it, as it will challenge the mind (and perhaps the patience) of the modern viewer, which will allow them to emerge a more mature moviegoer.
Of course, the most important technical aspect of Malick is his cinematography. Him and Emmanuel Lubezki (the D.P.) know how to create an image that is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. Malick is famous for exclusively working with natural light (or at least he never uses studio lights of any kind). This is something that is incredibly hard to pull off, but when it’s done correctly, it can look outstanding. The film is widely populated by soft colors, mostly ranging through greens and browns, giving a sense of the natural world to the sets and costumes. The hybridization of the natural and artificial worlds of the 50’s is clearly created and solidified before the camera even begins to roll. Because of this, we are free to simply float through the world as if it was our own. The camera dynamics that are derived from this are quite incredible, and raises the question: is this a movie? Or is it a symphony of light and color? Or a dance of camera and subject? Of course, the film remains a meditation, creating a hollistic reflection of the universe from a dynamic blur of color, light, people, places, things, and emotions. This is done both thematically ways (the experience of nature through the exploratory eyes of the children, for example) and explicate ways (the cosmic sequence, in which we see the creation of the universe and the birth of life, for example).
That brings me to the only regrettable part of the film. During the cosmic sequence, we were treated to roughly five images of dinosaurs. While some of these images weren’t intrusive, most of them were the opposite and actually felt quite anti-Malick. They were composed stiffly, which led me to believe that they were not shot as background plates for CGI work, but were originally landscape shots that were meant to stand entirely alone. In a world as rich as Malick’s, there is no room for an un-genuine moment. Perhaps in the director’s cut there could be some tweaking? Of course, these scenes were quite fleeting and easily forgettable in the sea of beautifully composed images that follow them.
CGI dinosaurs aside, everyone must see this film. There is plenty to distract you from their odd placement, and the rest of the runtime is so exquisite that it’s almost unbelievable. The transcendental compilation of moments and thought, and the beautiful, ethereal, and spiritual images of life is an experience unlike any other. This is cinema at it’s most mature and it’s most intelligent.
As a sidenote, I’d like to give a shout out to the Esquire theater in Denver. It was one of the best theatrical presentations I’ve seen in a long time. I’ve had some bad luck with the large theater chains lately, ranging from out of focus projectors to digital projections that weren’t specified as such, so this was a breath of fresh air. It was a 35mm projection, but it looked like 70mm (I had to peek into the projection booth to make sure). I never knew how much difference a simple focus mistake could be.
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(All ratings are out of five, with halves)
Art Direction: *****
Overall “Film as Entertainment” Rating: ** 1/2
Overall “Film as Art” Rating: *****