Sunday, January 15, 2012

Movie Review: The Tree of Life

Beauty Is In The Eye of the Beholder

       *This review appeared unedited in my Top 10 Films of 2011 post. It was, unsurprisingly, my number two film of the year. Malick, in my vernacular, means magnificent. And because I admired his visually enrapturing contemplation of life so deeply, it deserved singular residence on my blog. Without further elucidation, my review: 

      Terrence Malick's sprawling meditation of life is as ambitious a film as Stanley Kubrick's piece de resistance, 2001: A Space Odyssey. A technical achievement unsurpassed stylistically by every film this year, Tree of Life combines temporal extravagance with uncanny ambrosial awareness. Employing visual, narrative devices anathema to Hollywood, Malick exhibits, through ellipsis, elaborate visual exploration, and aggressive spacial arrangement, a rare fusion of style and technique. Astounding one's senses like the lyrical, transcendental rhymes of Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson, Tree of Life is the undisputed cinematic equivalent to prodigious poetry.
      Tree of Life examines, with a sharp dualistic lens, the various relationships of a Texas family during the 1950's. The father, Mr. O'Brien (Brad Pitt) is a masculine force, a stern disciplinarian, a pillar of justice while the mother, Mrs. O'Brien (Jessica Chastain), an archetype of contrast, is a feminine force, a compassionate caregiver, a pillar of mercy. Malick dutifully dissects these polar relationships, heeding particular attention to the sibling affairs of young Jack (Hunter McCracken) and his younger brother, R.L. Malick employs these dichotomies to illuminate the antagonistic reality of growing up. Relying primarily on adult Jack's (Sean Penn) point of view, Malick's miraculous third act underscores the fraternal bonds of brotherhood, lingering on temptations of danger and pleas for forgiveness. 
      Malick, a philosophical filmmaker, designs Tree of Life as a robust synthesis between nature and grace, father and son, brother and sibling, husband and wife. From a portrait juxtaposing the creation of universe with the creation of family life, Malick espouses the belief that man, a primal arbiter of good, is fallible. Mr. O'Brien is, in a way, God of his family; his experiences, through the reminiscences of his son, Jack, parallel the creation of the world. A fundamental theme of Malick's oeuvre is the idea that man has lost his way and, cultivated by circumstance and deep-rooted motivation, strives to rediscover paradise. But, as life teaches us, you cannot. Everyone loses their innocence. The problem, Malick asserts, is you cannot regain it. Young Jack wants to please his dad so desperately, but, after an arresting scene at the family dinner table, realizes the futility of his ambitions; his father is fallible. It is one of the most powerful displays of the volatile human condition. Through a disciplined visual composition, and shrewd, deliberate direction, Malick reveals years of emotion in a few frames. Ultimately, from a narrative assessment, Malick's ambitious tale ends on an optimistic note, as Jack, now an adult comes to peace with his family and his struggles.
      Malick illuminates, what I consider, a career-defining performance from Brad Pitt. He is the de facto family patriarch, struggling to raise his three boys in a manner diametric to his wife's nurturing presence. Pitt's performance, consequently, hits on two pivotal notes: As the strict family patriarch and, with greater emotive difficulty, as a man oppressed by the allure of the American dream, scorned by a materialistic world. O'Brien's (Pitt) resentment, mobilized by fits of rage, complicates his corrosive relationship with his eldest son, Jack. From a journey spanning adolescence and adulthood, and harboring dualistic themes, Pitt's dynamic performance provides insight into Sean Penn's "mysterious" character, who, despite remembering his father as a brutal disciplinarian, is able to find solace in the realization of his father's virtuous intentions.
       The film is messy in some areas, but Malick's innovative strokes, encompassing his use of visual language, and his broad stylistic flourishes, which devastate emotionally, are magnificent. Yes, Tree of Life is pretentious, but in an "If You Could Do What I Could Do With A Camera Then You Would Not Complain" kind of way. Malick's technical proficiency and cerebral approach has never been put to better use. And virtually every aspect of Tree of Life, from dialogue, imagery, and tone, coheres seamlessly. 
     Tree of Life is one of the most breathtaking, ambitious home movies ever designed, employing jump-cuts, deft camera movements, and bold proclamations. Every single-shot has weight and significance. The camera is constantly moving, seeking something ethereal, something I would contend, that mirrors the motivations of this pastoral Texas family, because unsurprisingly, Tree of Life is explicitly Christian. But Malick, through a mise-en-scène both honest and compassionate, never proselytizes. His religious undertones supply thematic cohesion; they are not religious recruitment tactics. 
      I am aware many a man found it terribly boring; from what I gather, many disgusted cinemagoers walked out of the theater altogether. But I suspect these people, without being reductive or disingenuous, came in expecting a Brad Pitt film, or Malick supporters, who reside on the fringe of fandom, were expecting a reconstitution of Badlands or The Thin Red Line. Or, most detractors, I presume, came in expecting another Hollywood family story. Of course, Tree of Life is none of these things. Not even close.
      There is incredible hostility, cataclysmic in tone, towards it. Most moviegoers, as I addressed above, were probably expecting a conventional family drama headed by Brad Pitt. But what they walked into, unbeknownst to their film appetite, was the most ambitious, narratively bizarre film they've ever seen...maybe, I posit, since they suffered through Kubricks' 2001. Yes, that film: Only the greatest science-fiction film of All-Time. So, maybe, just maybe, the intense vitriol surrounding Malick's Tree of Life will, with time, dissipate and wane. Revisionist history, I predict confidently, will shine the most glorious light of adoration on Malick's meditation of life. With an economy of dialogue and exposition, antithetical to most modern films, Malick created an unrivaled visual composition, a synergistic ballad of style and atmosphere, a studied culmination of his upbringing. 

9.5 out of 10


  1. Brilliant review, Matty. The cinematography was stunning, and Brad Pitt's performance was hands down the best in his career. It had a couple of unnecessarily extended and pretty tedious scenes, but apart from that it was a great movie.

    1. Thanks, buddy! Yes, the cinematography was pristine. Glad you saw the brilliance of Pitt's performance. I feel like it's been overlooked given the mainstream exposure of Moneyball, in which he also performed admirably.

      I understand your gripes. There was unequivocally a degree of pretension to the film. I think that is part and parcel of Malick's impeccably detailed, visually engrossing style.

      Thanks for echoing my praise!

  2. I'm not that into Malick. I think his films are gorgeous, but they leave me feeling stupid, like I'm not getting something. I also have to be in the mood for them.

    Terrific review, though. You and George make me want to give this a shot because I feel like maybe I'd understand it a bit better now that I've read your thoughts on it.

    1. Thanks, Melissa!

      Please tell me you at least enjoyed Badlands!? In my quirky, almost Coen Brothers like mind, that movie was an unblemished masterpiece.

      Well, hopefully my treatise of paroxysm could perhaps unlock some of the mysteries of Malick at least from your vantage point. I appreciate the gesture.

      And George knows his stuff!

  3. Well, you know I love this film. It’s simply brilliant!

    Unfortunately, I have yet to see 2001: A Space Odyssey. I know, horrible. It’s one of those films I have been meaning to see and never got around to despite its abundant praise. I think I will have to make it a priority. Plus I read months ago on IMDB that Malick used the same visual artist from 2001: A Space Odyssey on The Tree of Life, so that’s encouraging. I mean The Tree of Life is a beautiful film and yes pretentious like you said but definitely in a good way.

    Excellent review!! You're seriously an amazing writer.

    1. Ha, we do share a fondness for this film!

      I appreciate your honesty because 2001 is one of those films that most people falsely profess to seeing. Kudos to you.

      Needless to say, set aside three hours on one quiet night and prepare yourself for a visceral journey through time that you've likely never before seen. And since you can appreciate Tree of Life, I'm extremely confident you'll appreciate 2001.

      Thank you very much :)

  4. I've been hesitant to try this one, in part because of the love-it-or-hate-it vibe it's had since its release. Of course, your comparison to 2001: A Space Odyssey doesn't help matters; despite some great individual scenes, that's probably my second-least favorite of Kubrick's films (behind Eyes Wide Shut.

    But re-reading your review has convinced me. I will watch this film. (Although it probably won't happen until I've gone through the rest of your Top 10...) Thanks for a great review.

    1. You're welcome, Nate.

      I completely understand your reluctance. This film is not for everyone. And that is not an indictment of one's enjoyment, intellect, or tastes. As a self-described purveyor of eclectic films, I acknowledge unapologetically it is a medium without universal standards of enjoyment. That's why I love it!

      While your rejection of 2001 disappoints me, I firmly accept your stance. I know a few people who share your assessment. At least you know Kubrick is a master.

      Glad my review affected your decision, I would argue, for the better. I appreciate the sentiment. Thanks for the thoughtful remarks!

  5. One of my top favorite of the year, the same thing happened to me when I saw it in the theater, some laughed, some clapped and some just sat their as was I stunned at the magnificent film they'd just seen. I mean, I can understand how some people will not enjoy it, it's a philosophical, thematically heavy, artistic film, three qualities that make the regular movie goer run to the hills.

    1. Terrific! I always enjoy meeting a fellow staunch Tree of Life supporter. I think the diversity of opinion, and the extreme manifestation of it, is customary of Malick's films. It neither surprised nor disappointed me. It just affirms the "uniqueness" of Malick's artistically centric oeuvre. And your statement is dead-on. This type of film is anathema to modern commercial, popcorn fare. I'm just happy we got to see "this" kind of a film projected in a theater.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  6. I had absolutely no interest in this film, until I saw this piece. Now I really want to see it. Thanks, Matt.

    1. Aww, how wonderful is that! Thank you! The best thing about writing opinions about films is the opportunity to effect change. The fact that my review coaxed your desire to see it is music to my ears.

      Thanks :)

  7. Outstanding review Matthew. Like you, I was thoroughly impressed by this film and truly believe it's going to be a work of art that will be talked about many years and decades down the road. I also agree that Brad Pitt gives perhaps his best performance of his career in The Tree of Life. I have been left perplexed by the fact that his solid but nonetheless inferior work in Moneyball is getting singled out for awards while this isn't.

    Again, excellent analysis of the film and nicely written.

    1. Thanks, Castor! I appreciate your kind appraisal.

      I'm always amazed by the harsh sting of Malick's detractors. Tree of Life deserves, at least we can agree, much more positive mainstream attention. It's a shame this film won't receive the enormous praise it deserves until long after Malick has passed.

      Glad you agree with my take on Pitt's performance. Moneyball was a less inspired delegation of his talents because the role did not require the nuance and emotional depth of Mr. O'Brien.

      Thanks again :)

  8. wow
    perfect review
    everyone sees that you love cinema
    thx for shar. with us

    greets from the End of the World

  9. ps.
    I will be more often here
    - for sure