The Tree of Life (2011)
Ambitious in scope, sublime in artistry, bold in imagination, unprecedented in imagery, meditative in content & controlled in execution, The Tree of Life is an incredibly provocative, symbolic, philosophical & visually arresting example of arthouse cinema that’s also pretty much destined to polarize its audience but for those who can manage to patiently connect with it, it’s definitely going to be an emotionally rewarding & intimately unique experience.
Filmed in an impressionistic manner, The Tree of Life is a radical examination of both the origin & meaning of life and follows the journey of O’Brien family’s eldest son from his birth to adult years where he continues to be in conflict with himself, is still seeking answers to the purpose of life & after a tragic incident, also begins to question the existence of faith. Interspersed within this narrative are images depicting the birth of the Universe & dawn of life on Earth.
Written & directed by Terrence Malick (Badlands, Days of Heaven & The Thin Red Line), The Tree of Life is undoubtedly his most ambitious, thought-provoking & divisive film to date. Brimming with Malick’s unique cinematic vision & precise eye for detail plus making effective use of all his trademarks, it is also the most gorgeous looking picture he (or probably anyone) has ever made for every single frame of it is a masterwork of spellbinding art, even if those philosophical ramblings most times go completely over the head.
The screenplay also makes continuous use of voiceovers, a usual element found in Terrence Malick films, and relies on its visuals to carry the story forward. The entire process of growing up is captured in an awe-inspiring manner & happen to feature moments that almost every viewer should be able to relate to at some point. The script also deals with existential, religious & metaphysical themes but the whole story is mainly a conflict between the two choices that life offers: the path of grace & the path of nature.
Coming to the technical aspects, The Tree of Life is an absolute beauty from start to finish. Production Design is stellar, shooting locations are wisely chosen but where the film sets an all-new benchmark is in its breathtaking cinematography. With an influential director at helm & Emmanuel Lubezki operating the camera, every n every frame is the very definition of perfection and thanks to its cleverly chosen angles, expert use of natural light & ideal framing of shots, the visual encapsulation is immensely soothing & ethereal to the senses.
Editing is equally impressive as far as stitching those distinct images into one harmoniously unfolding sequence is concerned but when it comes to pacing, the film is all over the place. There are times when it gets repetitive, some moments despite the splendid imagery become way too frustrating to sit through plus a slightly conventional & accessible narrative approach would’ve highly benefited the film without lessening its impact. And even though Alexandre Desplat did compose the soundtrack, Malick nevertheless ends up incorporating classical tracks into the feature which simply fit.
As far as performances go, the cast comprises of Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain, Sean Penn & Hunter McCracken and most of them are committed in their given roles. Pitt & Chastain are in as Mr. & Mrs. O’Brien, with the father representing the nature side of life while the mother is the epitome of grace. McCracken does brilliantly in the role of O’Brien’s eldest son & his struggle with his parents’ conflicting teachings is utterly convincing. Sean Penn plays the adult version of the same character and all he does is wander around without any idea of what’s going on, something many who despise this film will be able to relate to.
The film chooses the path of grace over nature but it never criticises the other. We have Mrs. O’Brien who sees the world as a place of wonder and teaches her sons to be graceful, forgiving & loving. Her gentle, caring nature also allows her children to be more comfortable in her company. Mr. O’Brien on the other hand believes the world to be exploitative and teaches them to be prepared when the harsh realities of life come knocking at the door. The sons find his strict nature to be intimidating but that doesn’t mean his love isn’t pure. He’s been shaped by the choices of his life & only want them to avoid the mistakes that he made.
And then we have the family’s first-born who in his adolescent years begins to make his own perception of the world around him. While the nurturing ways of his mother taught him to love, the strict upbringing from his father also kept his behaviour in check. Constantly wrestling with the two opposing teachings in addition to the usual troubles of adolescence, he often finds himself agitated & frustrated and lashes his anger out through acts of vandalism & rebellion. But he also seems to differentiate the right from wrong as is evident in his feelings of guilt, and does come around before the damage is irreversible.
As for me, I’m equally conflicted with The Tree of Life. It deserves a full score for its jaw-dropping photography alone, is filled with moments that are snippets of my very own childhood, and those sequences dealing with the birth of universe & inception of life on Earth are easily my favourite moments in the picture. But then there’s that constant narration always asking or telling things I just don’t give a damn about & although I was able to look past that for the majority of its runtime, the final 15 minutes are simply too much to handle. This was when the film felt like it’s in full pretentious mode & I could finally see why many hate it. I don’t blame them either.
On an overall scale, The Tree of Life is an aesthetic, artistic & extraordinary work of dazzling beauty that arguably has no comparisons. There are moments in it which make you go like it’s the greatest achievement in cinema history but then there are also times when it evokes an entirely opposite response. It’s too easy to dismiss it as pretentious cinema & a part of it actually is but one way or another, The Tree of Life will continue to find its audience. An ode to life, a reflection on love & loss, and a strong reminder of the infinite smallness of mankind against the grand schemes of the Universe, Terrence Malick’s magnum opus is cinema at its most spiritual that comes recommended with multiple viewings advised.