The Tree of Life (2011) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
23Jun/110

The Tree of Life (2011)

Danny no longer writes for Can't Stop the Movies, and can be reached at his fantastic site Pre-Code.com

I'm struggling to not begin this review with rhetorical questions about the universe and the nature of humanity. This review is going to discuss that because that's what The Tree of Life is about. I'm sure I'll have plenty of rhetoric later anyway, so I'm going to save it for then and simply begin with this warning:

I don't believe films can be classified as 'pretentious'. Anyone assuming they know the director's intentions so much as to presume arrogance is on their behalf is, in my opinion, themselves a total asshole.

That being said, this review you're reading right now? Oh, I'm being super pretentious. Sorry. Keep reading if you can stand it, I'll understand if you don't.

Terrence Mallick's Tree of Life has a number of other adjectives I'd like to apply briefly, ranging from ambitious to visionary. Combining art house sensibilities with a traditional narrative is one thing, but creating a wholly engrossing morality play about the nature of god and the universe in a surprisingly short period of time is something else.

Yes, I just described 2 and 1/2 hours as 'a surprisingly short period of time'. That statement surprises me as well.

Let me curtail into a brief synopsis: first there was something. Then the earth. Then dinosaurs. Then man. Then a family with three boys in Texas in the 1950's. Then the world is baked by the sun exploding and the Earth ceases to be.

That sounds... complex. And it is. In fact, you'd almost guess the parts set on the Texan family would be the most understandable, but they are, in fact, more than they appear to be. But before I delve into that issue, let's start at the beginning.

Like the consciousness of man, Tree of Life has its narrative ebb and wane. Things make sense to one man at one point in the miasma of the chaotic universe and then it recedes back into dark black emptiness. That is the nature of the universe, it is incontrovertible. Emerging from this is life, delicate and fragile. In the Texan scenario, we're given three young boys and the knowledge of a future tragedy befalling one of them.

Most other films would set this as a focal point, underlying this with narrative drive carefully bringing the characters to this tragedy and the acceptance of it. What we get instead is the story of the oldest, a young man suffering under the heady yoke of a demanding father, a coddling mother, and a yearn to stand on his own. His attempts at placation are met with mixed results, and once he finds himself on his own, he eagerly begins a descent into recklessness and disillusionment.

Brad Pitt is The Father, figuratively and metaphorically. "I'm Father-- don't call me dad!" he screams at one point to drive home the obvious. Jessica Chastain is his wife and the Earth, possibly in that order. They're a yin and yang, as without the other they become useless.

If only I'd sent away for that Ovaltene spy ring, then I wouldn't have to think about any of this at all.

As for the rest of the cast, Sean Penn's role as the eldest boy grown up is essentially an extended cameo, but deep down something more. His craggy face and eyes of a child lost in a man's body create an adult man besieged by regrets with spare words. The young boy who plays his character, Hunter McCracken, embodies the spirit of both a resentful young man and mankind, endlessly aching for comfort and pleasure but unable to sustain themselves with just that.

All of that pretentious rambling being said and done, confession time: there are parts of the film that bored me. There are parts of great beauty that I, personally, met with indifference. But I'd be lying if I didn't say that these were few and far between, pebbles at the bottom a mountain.

And, as sickeningly cynical as this makes me feel, I feel I must warn anyone who attempts The Tree of Life that it is a film that requires that its audience think about what's happening on the screen as it happens. I wish this wasn't something I had to warn people about, but if all you yearn to do is leech off the mindless visceral teat of cinema, this one ain't for you.

This is a film delivered as a box of puzzle pieces, and some are big dull shapes, most are joyous. It's a film that requires thought and analysis, which is a deeply scary thing but rewarding, like watching a flower bloom. No other film I've seen has ever possessed such a joyous celebration of the tactile, nor have I seen any in memory that so clearly attempts to define the human experience in such a innocuous manner.

Also, it's fucking great looking. Uh, the film, not the... you know what I mean.

After seeing this movie, I drove home past red painted hills as the sun began to coat the horizon in shades of orange and purple. I felt the wind from the speed on my shirt and watched the little hairs on my arm dance wildly.

There's a lot of beauty out there. You just have to remember to see it.

Posted by Danny

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