I couldn’t bring myself to include this article as part of our “Movies that Rock” feature. I can’t imagine anyone saying that The Tree of Life rocks, even if it’s clever a play on words. I’m not 100% if there’s a right adjective to describe the film, but I’ll stick with strange for now.
The Tree of Life made national headlines when it won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival last May. Even though it stars Brad Pitt and Sean Penn, press about the film was pretty quiet until Cannes. It received a limited run in theatres, mainly in art house cinemas. This warning was shown at the artsy movie theatre near my hometown. Ever since I saw a man outside that theatre cautioning people to do some research before seeing the movie, I became fascinated with it. What kind of person does that?
I’m sure you’re wondering what The Tree of Life is about. I’ve seen the movie twice now and I’m not sure how to describe it. The Tree of Life doesn’t really have much of a plot. Instead, it has a non-linear narrative which functions like a plot. In between the film’s sparse dialogue is a series of images going back as early as the beginning of time. The imagery is where the film really finds itself; it’s truly as awe-inspiring as Planet Earth.
The Tree of Life goes in whatever direction its characters wish to take it with their thoughts about life. Penn is barely in the movie as his character, Jack, is a child for almost the entire duration of the film. The film’s grounding comes from the story of his family’s life. Pitt and Jessica Chastain play Jack’s parents, who seem to be your typical parents in a 1950s Texan setting. They’re all troubled people who try to decide whether they want to follow a path of grace or a path of nature. The imagery of the universe aims to provide examples of nature vs. nurture (I think…)
The plot seems simple enough, but isn’t really the focus of the movie. The plot often gets in the way of the imagery which is so important to the movie that you almost wish the plot would go away all together. The characters are distant and the audience is never really given a chance to connect with them. The film wants to speak to its audience, but it doesn’t give them a reason to listen. Maybe that’s because the imagery is so overwhelming that sound takes too much of a backseat role.
I’ve read comparisons between The Tree of Life and 2001: A Space Odyssey. I’m aware that every experimental visionary film will be compared to 2001 for the rest of recorded time (which the Tree of Life may have depicted), but it still seems cliché. The Tree of Life is like an expanded version of 2001’s first 15 and last 20 minutes (the parts with no words). Stanley Kubrick was a visionary, but he still created a film that had good guys, bad guys, and a climax. The Tree of Life has people in it, but it’s hard to call them characters. They don’t really have identities. Malick is good at depicting landscapes, but he struggles with people.
Part of my viewing experience was tainted by my previous experience with the director. I was not a fan of Terrence Malick’s last film, The New World. It was the story of Pocahontas if it was told from the perspective of a New York hipster. It was pretentious, self-absorbed, and it contained no song involving a wolf crying to the blue corn moon. Fail. There were a few instances where I was reminded of The New World but I was able to keep it out of my head for most of the film.
If you really like experimental films, than by all means go see The Tree of Life. You need to be prepared to keep an open mind throughout the entire film. While I don’t like comparing it to 2001, I will say that if you hated 2001 you probably won’t like The Tree of Life.
I’m not sure if I like The Tree of Life yet. I need to see it a few more times to really get a grip on what this movie is about. Yea, it’s one of those films. But you probably figured that out already.