Posted December 16, 2010 by Ryan Goodwin Smith in Films
 
 

Tree Of Life, The


As a sucker for nostalgia and growing up about 100 miles east of Smithville, Texas, where the bulk of Terrence Malick’s latest opus to life, the universe and er, everything was shot, is it any wonder I was crying by the end of The Tree of Life?

As a sucker for nostalgia and growing up about 100 miles east of Smithville, Texas, where the bulk of Terrence Malick’s latest opus to life, the universe and er, everything was shot, is it any wonder I was crying by the end of The Tree of Life?

The film opens on a pulsing gem of light. At different points, a voice will ask (the audience? God? The Universe?) ‘What we are doing here?’ Or ‘What is the point?’ The voice talks over snippets of memory. Clips and fragments of a mother’s grief as she discovers one of her sons has been killed, the reason unexplained (military service?). The voice is disconnected to the images of the O’Briens and it’s hard to keep track of what it’s saying because now we’re cruising through outer space – somewhere a million miles from the acute pain of loss – watching a nebula forming a star. Then a long shot on a volcano spouting lava. Then we’re very small, looking at the building blocks of life emerging from a beautiful eye-coloured geyser pool. And then, a dinosaur. Sitting by a lake. Yes, really.

The Tree of Life is composed of fragments and memories. Your natural reaction is to fight the editing and hunt for meaning immediately. Hollywood has us preconditioned to demanding clarity now and at all times. Instead of summing up Brad Pitt’s (or any other) character in 138 minutes, Malick tries most admirably to reflect how impossible it is to get the measure of anyone at all in a lifetime. People are so complex. How can you quantify them?

This film is a glimpse into how the mind remembers. We remember how people have both outward personas and inner ambitions. We keep secrets from both others and ourselves. We are ashamed and make others feel our shame. We love intensely in very small moments – and they are heartbreakingly beautiful.

Apart from the fictional nature footage (imagine a cross between the best National Geographic film and 2001: A Space Odyssey) most of the action involves the O’Briens played by Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain and three incredible young boys. The cinematography, courtesy of Emmanuel Lubezki, is stunning, the camera often taking the POV of an unseen child, looking up at other boys or to adults for faces and answers. It catches the beautiful Texas landscape (all Spanish moss and fireflies), the sun peeking through twisted branches and leaves, around buildings, over rooftops, between cars.

The biggest memory is Jack’s – played as a child by the excellent Hunter McCracken and as an adult by, the thankfully minimal, Sean Penn. He’s the eldest boy and we experience the moment he passes through the looking glass from boyhood to adolescence and the immense heartache it brings. What a triumph to capture these emotions through hardly any dialogue.

Watching The Tree of Life is a difficult experience to describe. And while many reviewers will qualify their opinions by saying this film isn’t for everyone, I disagree. Sure it’s long, eschews a conventional narrative and is unabashedly ambitious. But The Tree Of Life is a film that demands to be seen and the reasons for seeing it are as varied as the people in the audience. My brother should see it because, I think, at its core, this is a film about the smallest moments brothers spend together as young boys. My parents should see it because it’s about the importance of small moments in a family. You should see this film if you’ve ever been in a family, have ever loved someone with all your heart, if you’ve ever known unimaginable pain through loss.

But more importantly, as they say in Texas, you can’t tell how deep a well is by measuring the length of the pump handle. For all the reviews and opinions, The Tree of Life needs to be experienced.


Ryan Goodwin Smith