Fox // 2011 // 139 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Paul Pritchard (Retired) // October 10th, 2011
"You're all I have. You're all I want to have."
The differing reactions to The Tree of Life at the Cannes Film Festival offer a perfect example of the polarizing views Terence Malick's (Badlands) latest feature seems to draw. Despite being met by boos from audiences, the film still went on to win the Palme d'Or.
Attempting to wrap the life cycle of our universe around the story of a young boy's childhood in 1950s America, The Tree of Life never lacks ambition, but struggles at times to find focus. It delivers moments of greatness, yet never manages to truly be great. It is sure to be the cause of much debate amongst cinephiles. Whatever your immediate reaction, it seems destined to demand repeat viewings.
The death of his brother forces Jack O'Brien (Sean Penn, Milk) to confront his past, which is dominated by his difficult relationship with his father, which in turn offers him a chance to get his own life back on course. As Jack's memories come flooding back, recalling key moments in his life, he comes to question the meanings of life, love, and family.
With The Tree of Life, Terrence Malick seems determined to challenge perceptions and divide opinion. Those who end up loving the film must also acknowledge its many, many faults, while those who dismiss it as art for art's sake must surely accept that it is, repeatedly, a breathtaking work of cinema, unparalleled in terms of scope and ambition. As such, offering up any definitive judgment on the film feels desperately futile, as repeat viewings offer up new and conflicting takes on this complex work.
That said, the one area of The Tree of Life that few be able to fault is the visuals. Beginning with darkness, broken up only by a faint light (Thomas Wilfred's "Opus 161"), The Tree of Life sees Malick attempt to reproduce nothing less than the very birth of the universe, and subsequently the start of life on Earth. If this suggests a director reaching too far, perhaps even slipping into pretentiousness (which Malick is guilty of at several points throughout The Tree of Life), it is so beautifully presented, that the lack of anything resembling a narrative during the opening hour is irrelevant. From the violent, loud eruptions that signal the formation of our planet, to the graceful scenes of the first organisms evolving, Malick comes as close as anyone to capturing the elegance of the natural world. Likewise, when the film moves to 1950s America to focus on the childhood of Jack O'Brien and his siblings, The Tree of Life captures snapshots of human existence that serve to remind us all what a miracle each life is. A scene where Brad Pitt's Mr. O'Brien cradles his newborn child, or a toddler happily chasing bubbles around a backyard offer an idyllic representation of family life, and match anything featured in the bold opening.
Is that enough? Is there weight behind the argument that The Tree of Life is all surface, no feeling? Beyond the exterior, is there anything of merit to Malick's epic? The answer is yes, The Tree of Life has the ability to touch the viewer in profound ways, but not enough as it should, and not nearly as often as one would assume Malick had wished.
Problems arise very early on, with the intentions of certain scenes being left too vague. The earliest specific example of this comes during a sequence I was very much intrigued by when I heard of its inclusion in the movie. The scene in question depicts a wounded dinosaur lying by the side of a river, seemingly on the verge of death. A Troodon emerges and prepares for the kill, before apparently showing mercy for its fallen prey and running away. As beautifully rendered as it undoubtedly is, what is it that the scene depicts? Does the scene purport to show the first example of compassion? Does it offer an example of the "two ways through life," grace and nature, that the film frequently discusses, with the Troodon choosing the path of grace over its more naturalistic tendencies? Is it in anyway supposed to offer a reflection of the relationships the human characters, who appear later on, share? Or is it a red herring that has no meaning whatsoever?
These problems are also found during the middle section of the film, which deals with the O'Brien family. Chief amongst my complaints with this section of the film is the lack of a real connection made between the viewer and the characters. Our interactions with them are just too fleeting, with each moment being far too short before we are ushered along to something else. Eschewing a traditional narrative, scenes do not flow naturally from one to the next; instead they collide into each other, and are presented as the recollections of the grown up Jack as he attempts to come to come to terms with his brother's death, reconnect with his past, and find himself in the process. I appreciate the approach, but any sincerity and empathy is lost when these poignant moments are presented with no real context into which they can be framed, and give the film a disjointed feel. It's a damn shame too, as there are such majestic moments here, such as a father and son making a connection over a piece of music; the joy of a child discovering the world around them; or the excitement of a first love. But as is the way of The Tree of Life, these moments are never given the time they deserve, and are cut off just as they begin to take hold. This may very well serve as a better representation of how our memories work, but it doesn't necessarily make for a richer viewing experience.
Brad Pitt's (Se7en) portrayal of Mr. O'Brien sees the actor take on a difficult role. His authoritarian ways see him rule over the family through a use of intimidation and, in one or two instances, violence. Still, there's no doubt O'Brien loves his family, and his abrasive demeanor stems from his wish for his boys to grow up strong and not make the same mistakes he has. Upon learning of his son's death, he whispers, "I made him feel shamed. My shame." This goes back to the "two ways through life," with Mr. O'Brien representing nature. He holds a pessimistic view of most things, including his children, and attempts to prepare his boys for a world he little understands, and vociferously despises. Ultimately he is about survival, and hopes to equip his boys with the tools to survive when he is not around. He confesses to giving up on his own dreams of being a musician, due in part to fear of failure, but also due to his inability to place much stock in hope.
In sharp contrast, Malick paints the role of the mother as godlike. Jessica Chastain (The Help) delivers what is in many ways the quintessential mother figure: ever-loving, and always looking to do right by her boys. She is full of hope, and represents grace. She wants her boys to experience all that life has to offer, and revels in the simple things. She also represents the biggest clues to Malick's views on God and religion, which is frequently touched upon, and brings us to Sean Penn's performance. Penn gets surprisingly little screen time, and what he does get is often labored and overly ponderous. Much of his work takes place of screen, as his character questions the meaning of our existence. His trajectory is that of a man who has lost himself, and -- upon learning of his brother's death -- desperately looks to reconnect with his past. He seeks to make peace with his father, who in an early scene he regrettably informs, "I'm more like you than her." There's no weight to the adult Jack, and their reconciliation, which comes during a sequence that depicts the end of the world, feels too self-aware; in trying so hard, the scene struggles to make the same impact a simpler presentation might have had.
As already mentioned: the lack of a more formal structure, coupled with the film's scope, tends to result in an unfocused picture; but what proves to be most off-putting is Malick's apparent refusal to cast a more critical eye over his own work, and excise unnecessary material from his film. There's zero reason the running time could not have been reduced significantly, and still maintained the film's themes and beauty. In fact, I'd argue a reduction in the film's length -- not to mention a more traditional arrangement -- would have delivered a more affecting film. The more experimental elements of The Tree of Life don't feel wholly necessary to the film's success. Likewise, some of the dialogue, particularly the musings that accompany the montages, feel a little trite, and prove more of a distraction when the statements being made ("I didn't know how to name you then") feel unnatural coming from a young boy, for example, as do the numerous questions being pondered that were never really begging to be answered. The great shame of all this, is that these moments distract from the truths the film does deliver, particularly with regard to childhood. Regardless of the decade you grew up in, it's impossible not to draw parallels with what we see onscreen. The idle summer days; the pushing of our boundaries; the first experience of death, and the conflicting traits we pick up from our parents.
Ultimately, to truly embrace The Tree of Life, one must accept it for what it is. This is not a story about the O'Brien family, nor is it a complete history of the universe. Rather, The Tree of Life is a mediation on the beauty of life. While the film doesn't mask the unknowns and uncertainties that often beset us on our individual journeys, it constantly tells us that everything will be okay; that, beyond the world we see, lies something more, and reminds us that there is always hope.
The DVD screener sent for review contained a first-rate 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer. During the early sections of the movie, particularly the scenes depicting the birth of the universe, colors are bold and vibrant, while the scenes depicting the lives of the O'Brien family have a much more natural color palette. The image is razor sharp throughout, with a high level of detail and deep black levels. The 5.1 soundtrack equals the video presentation, with even the hushed dialogue featured during the opening segment being clear.
Fox will be releasing The Tree of Life as a Blu-ray combo pack only, containing the Blu-ray version of the film, along with a DVD and Digital Copy. The screener sent for review lacked special features, though the retail copy promises a documentary discussing Malick's career, which includes contributions from Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight) and David Fincher (Fight Club). However, as the Blu-ray version was not made available for review, the technical aspects of the review, along with the audio/video scores reflect the DVD version of the film only.
Malick set himself an impossible task with The Tree of Life, and frequently struggles to fully realize his ideas. Although it's deeply flawed, the sheer ambition of The Tree of Life won me over. There are moments where the film threatens to completely disconnect itself from its audience, as it drags during a sometimes labored second act, only to astound moments later; meanwhile the predominantly dialogue free opening act is likely to leave some perplexed, as others look on, jaws agape at the wondrous imagery.
In many ways what you get out of The Tree of Life is equal to what you put in. The O'Briens are a cipher onto which the viewer is encouraged to imprint his or her own experiences in order to really gain meaning. Submit yourself to Malick's spell, and The Tree of Life delivers a unique and frequently rewarding experience.
If you're prepared to sift through its many flaws for traces of gold, The Tree of Life is an intriguing, albeit frustrating film, worthy of your time.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 139 Minutes
Release Year: 2011
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13