The Tree of Life

7 Aug

Director: Terrence Malik (2011)

If Terrence Malik made nature documentaries, they would probably look like this. Wait, has Terrence Malik made a nature documentary? With dinosaurs?! And volcanoes? And space? This is going to be a strange one.

The Tree Of Life has been a long time in the making, and as the follow up from Malik’s previous film Amazing Grace in 2006, all eyes were on one of the more elusive directors in the game as to whether his latest film could offer a worthwhile explanation for the director’s cinematic silence for the last five years. Thankfully, the industry took to it well and even granted it the prestigious Palme D’Or at Cannes this year. However, while the industry accolades may have been bestowed, and I am convinced it was indeed a good film; I am still nonetheless a little bemused.

From the opening scenes, it is clear the Bible is going to offer an overriding narrative theme as moody quotations from the Book of Job play against ambient, ethereal visuals. This film is beautiful, the cinematography is second to none as Malik’s mastery of the camera glides over stunning natural beauty, manipulating each frame into the next with glorious ease to perfectly capture the beauty of the world. But is this God’s world? Or is it just the wonderful result of chemical and geological reactions over thousands of years? It is this juxtaposition that I immediately found difficult – with Biblical references filling our ears while scientific images filled our eyes, it was clear Malik is going for a purposeful confusion….or was it? I felt it best to just ride the thought that this was going to be a irrevocably questioning film. Bear in mind all these questions have already been raised literally within the first 8 minutes. And The Tree of Life is a 138 minutes long.

The interspersed nature documentaries aside, there is a story featuring Brad Pitt and Sean Penn in there too. Mrs O’Brien (Jessica Chastain) receives the terrible news that her son has died, aged 19, Mr O’Brien (Bradd Pitt) is told by phone and so the O’Brien’s vapid suburban life is sent into a tailspin as the family struggle to understand what kind of universe could allow such a tragedy.

The film works through a series of flashbacks and reminiscences within the main time frame but also through Jack O’Brien, the youngest son, now an architect (Sean Penn) as he contemplates losing his brother.

As you may have gathered, it is a strange one to synopsise… Perhaps it is best to work from thematically. So far we have religion, science, creationism and now family. And it is this family theme in which Malik really hits the mark. The O’Brien’s struggle through the horrific tragedy of losing a son while trying to retain their faith in a just Lord is interesting. Similarly, a short scene where Jack watches a disabled man and questions why he is like that, echoes this idea – how can a Lord who made such a beautiful world (see aforementioned 20 minute nature documentaries) also make one where people are ridiculed, disabled and unduly killed? Seeing it through the eyes of a child make these questions all the more poignant. The adults are damaged, Mrs O’Brien is the distraught mother while Mr O’Brien is stern and disappointed, whether it be in the apparent failings of his sons or in himself – his love for his sons is often shadowed by his fear that he is failing at his patriarchal duties. The child actors are frankly incredible, particularly young Jack, played by Hunter McCracken, is certainly one we will see again and one who should thank Mr Malik for this unique opportunity to start his film career on such a profound high. When his father leaves home on business, Jack is drawn into the world of the disaffected youth, rebelling from the love of his mother and respect of his brothers by taking part in acts of vandalism and animal abuse. It is almost hard to watch the innocence of a child shatter in the face of persuasion and, perhaps, even curiosity as he too struggles to understand the world that can be so good but also so inherently, and inexplicably evil.

The Tree Of Life is certainly a pensive one and it is easy to see why the critics gave it such mixed attentions. Coming in at over two hours long, with probably almost an hour of that being without dialogue and surrealist nature films verging on arthouse visuals, I found the film struggled to define itself. However, on further reflection, I can to an understanding that maybe this in itself is the point of the film – the world cannot be defined, or easily understood, and so why should a film exploring the intricacies of the universe and its inhabitants be able to? It is a rare occurrence that science and religion, birth and death are all encompassed in one narrative, but if anyone was going to attempt this feat it would be Terrence Malik. Unashamedly contradictory, surreal and, at times, confounding, The Tree of Life is nonetheless a fascinating film, beautiful, provocative and memorable. Just don’t ask ‘What’s it about?’ unless you have time to hear the answer.

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