The Tree of Life (2011)
9/10 Big Bang Theories
Life, the universe, and innocence lost in Texas.
The Tree of Life is about a man who finds himself disillusioned and lost in an existence he has no connection with and a world that he no longer understands. In order to get himself out of this funk and come to terms with the death of his younger brother that still haunts him years after the fact, he cycles all the way back to the creation of the universe and his days growing up with his two brothers in 1950s Waco, TX under his father’s strict rule and his mother’s loving care.
At least I think that’s what its about. All I know for certain is that it’s like 2001 mixed with Norman Rockwell, and that’s A-okay by me.
So after first seeing the trailer for this way back in October and flat-out crapping myself with anticipation over what looked like an experience that would render every movie ever made null and void, this one’s been a long time coming. I kinda did my homework by watching two phenomenal Malick movies in the lead-up to the big day, and while I’m sure that helped on a number of fronts, I don’t think a lifetime’s worth of preparation could have helped me to unravel this in just one sitting. With that being said, I still don’t think I’ve totally “got” it, but after mulling it over for a week and change, here’s what I’ve got:
This movie is epic in ways that will make you feel like a passing blip on the cosmic radar at times and like the singlemost important creation on this or any other planet at others. Like I said, it’s about a lot of different things that are utterly sprawling in scope and don’t seem to have much commonality at first glance, but putting together the pieces and coming to some kind of understanding over everything it lays on the table is what this is all about. And that’s great, that’s what I’ve come to expect from Terrence Malick and that’s one of many reasons why this guy is simply operating on another level. As for the other reasons, I’ll try to keep it brief ’cause this is the part where I start sounding like a broken record.
No one makes movies like this, no one makes movies that look this naturally gorgeous, and to call it “jaw-dropping” is to shortchange it to a fault. For a guy who’s never been one to manipulate natural beauty and has in turn showed us some of the most mind-blowing imagery in the history of film that could make anyone and everyone feel like they’ve never seen a sunset before, this movie and what it stands for is a culmination of everything that Malick’s ever stood for as a director. This seems like a movie that took absolutely forever to make, the only other director I know who does this good a job of dropping the audience into the lives of another family is John Cassavetes, and it’s insane how much ground and time it covers over the span of two hours and change. In short, the star of this movie is Terrence Malick right from square one, that’s the way it’s always been, and it’s really something to see.
It’s just incredible how he captures this simple, American nostalgia that we’ve lost over the years thanks to our ever-increasing reliance on technology that keeps us plugged in, pushes us away from each another, and distances us from the world around us. It’s playing kick the can with your neighborhood friends, is taking a bath with your little brother and making a beard out of bubbles, it’s drinking water from the hose, it’s the million different things that are synonymous with innocence and fade with age. Then you match all these scenes with this unbelievable score by Alexandre Desplat, and it’s tough not to get swept up in the whole thing. Really beautiful, really profound stuff that you takes you back in time and works a way better in motion than it does in text.
But before this love fest gets outta hand, the thing that has me going back and forth about The Tree of Life and almost made me give it a slightly lower Verdict is that, as easy as it is to admire this movie on so many levels that went above and beyond the hype, I wish there had been more of a personal connection for me. The funny thing is that this is about as universal as they come and that personal connection might have hit me like sledgehammer had I grown up with brothers and been born 30 years earlier. But even if that had been the case, since this movie is so much about Malick from top to bottom, it ultimately makes the characters feel secondary to the world around them.
Granted, maybe that’s the whole point, although for such authentic characters from a writer/director who’s given us some of the most realistic characters ever put to celluloid, it’s too bad that I couldn’t feel more empathetic. Not that that’s a gripe against the cast though, because they’re all pretty swell.
Brad Pitt couldn’t have been a more physically fitting match to play a red-blooded, tough-loving, all-American father, and he’s good even though it’s Jessica Chastain who steals the show as the understanding, affectionate mother. And props to first-timer Hunter McCracken (what a name) who does a fine job as young Jack, although Sean Penn doesn’t have a whole lot to do except look sad all the time and dish out some cryptic voiceovers as middle-aged Jack.
Geez, I could go on about The Tree of Life, but I’ll save the dissertation for another day since this is a movie that deserves a discussion rather than a rant. It isn’t an easy movie to “get” and it’d be hard to knock anyone for writing it off as pretentious, but keeping in mind that film makers just don’t get any more intentional and purposeful than Terrence Malick, there’s a whole lot to love and even more to dissect. Don’t go in looking for clear questions, clear answers or a firm grasp on what it’s even about or what’s going on, you’ll just end up disappointed. If you’re fine soaking it all in, drawing your own conclusions, and knowing full well that you’re gonna have to work this one out to make heads or tails out of it, it’s worth the effort.
But whatever you go in with and whatever you come out with, it’s a movie worth seeing and a movie worth praising not only as an unbelievable achievement from a technical standpoint, but as something that succeeds by being entirely different from the expected. And for a medium where predictability sells, it’s so effing great to see movies that march to the beat of their own drum.