The Tree of LifeFriday, July 15th, 2011 7:17 pm—Film
The Tree of Life (USA 2011, Drama), Writer/Director: Terrence Malick
Terrence Malick is that rare breed of artist whose works always offer something worth seeing. He’s known for making films infrequently, but that are many layers deep: Badlands, Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line, The New World and now The Tree of Life.
Some people find Malick’s latest film to be pretentious or overly ambitious. With its whispered voice over and narration, which are more like snippets of a poem than of a conversation, its lingering attention to imagery, its contemplation of the creation of the universe and of the afterlife, and its sheer length, I can easily see why some people are put off. But I wasn’t. It felt long, for sure, but there was a rhythm to it that I wouldn’t want to interfere with.
This is the thing about The Tree of Life. Malick allows it to show life happening, to flow and turn in the direction and at the pace it needs to take to flourish. He made a perfect choice in highlighting Smetana’s composition The Moldau somewhere in the heart of the film. I was so happy to hear those first notes; I’m no classical music expert, but this was a piece my sisters and I danced and composed ballets to as little girls, and its opening immediately takes me back to a world of make-believe, where everything seems possible. It depicts the Moldau River, the longest in the Czech Republic. Beginning with the tender breaths of the flute, gentle slivers of water stream over pebbles, then build and pulse into a powerful force that gushes over everything in its path and grows stronger with each beat. Water—the source of life by which the tree can take root.
On a narrative level, The Tree of Life centres around the eldest of three brothers (Hunter McCracken, who grows up to be Sean Penn) and his relationship with his sweet, gentle mother (a spectacular Jessica Chastain) and bitter, severe father (Brad Pitt). But the film’s strength isn’t in its narrative focus; it’s in its vision and scope. Malick does no less than explore how life is formed, on a cellular level as well as on emotional, psychological and spiritual levels.
As the film weaves its few scenes with dialogue in and out of long unspoken moments accompanied only by ambient sound and music, of montages showcasing a feast of beautiful images that often render the everyday abstract and feature light spattered across subjects in such a gorgeous way, it steps very close to the line dividing experimental and narrative film. It has to be the least expository movie I’ve ever seen. So much is said with looks and actions rather than words.
The Tree of Life is about the forces of nature (human and otherwise), about birth and death, love and hatred, joy and sorrow, creation and destruction. It’s stunning and moving, and I wish there was some way to frame it so that I could wander past some of its most beautiful moments and absorb them again, even when I don’t feel up to settling in for the film’s entire run.