Saturday, June 11, 2011

Review: "The Tree of Life"

Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life is an interesting piece of cinema. The story within is moving and beautiful, but the experimental nature of the film is often confusing and infuriating. The first thirty minutes and the last twenty minutes, featuring powerful images of the Earth and its many marvels, are too lengthy and drawn out. Siobhan and I saw the film together, as it is currently playing at only one theatre in Toronto (and Ontario, too). As it was opening night, the theatre was packed. The patrons in this upscale neighbourhood go out in droves to see award-winning films, but there was a sense of discomfort all around after the film began. The atmosphere was similar to when we saw Visage at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2009, when numerous people got up to leave. The couple sitting beside us this time were hardly invested in the film, going as far as to answer her cell phone at one point. Critics have compared The Tree of Life to Stanley Kubrick's groundbreaking film 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Both films feature intense stories with little dialogue, quick camera cuts and a powerful soundtrack. The last time I felt so confused and exhilarated watching a movie at the theatre was when I dragged my brother to see David Lynch's Inside Empire (2006). While The Tree of Life is not a perfect film by any means, Terrence Malick does achieve a certain level of success. The acting, particularly from young Hunter McCracken in his first acting role, is powerful and drives the complex story of a family raising three sons in the 1950s. Brad Pitt does a remarkable job in a role that requires multiple layers of emotion and Jessica Chastain is mesmerizing as his embattled wife. Sean Penn gets star billing, but his character exists only to strengthen the emotional complexities of the film. The editing and cinematography of the film are strong and Terrence Malick's great skill at direction are quite evident, but the film does get bogged down in its visually stunning experimentation. The Tree of Life will frustrate you and its fragmented narrative is uncommon in today's cinema, but it is a powerfully intense story about life and family that leaves a haunting impression.

The themes of life and family are presented through the lives of a young couple raising three boys in Texas in the 1950s. Mr. O'Brien, played by Brad Pitt, is stern and often abusive. He has certain expectations from his children. His wife (Chastain) is his polar opposite, seen as permissive and nurturing. When their son Jack (McCracken) is born, Mrs. O'Brien falls madly in love with her son. Mother and child have a bond that Mr. O'Brien will never have. The couple have two more sons, played by Laramie Eppler and Tye Sheridan, and it is evident that all three boys are loved by their parents and that the boys share a deep bond with each other. At the beginning of the film, we learn that one of the boys dies at age eighteen. Through a second narrative, set in the present, we learn that an older Jack (Sean Penn) has never recovered from his brother's death. This simple, yet complex, story of one family's existence is juxtaposed with grand images of the world and the creation of the Earth.

The Tree of Life won the coveted Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival in May. Terrence Malick's film has been hailed as a incredible piece of art by critics, but film goers have not been as vocal in support of Malick's experimental vision. The film is not common summer fare (it might better thrive during the fall Oscar-bait season), but I admire Fox Searchlight Pictures for releasing the film in the midst of its popularity peak after Cannes. The nonlinear story can be pieced together with a lot of analysis, but there are some images which are just utterly confusing to me, including a brief scene with a dinosaur and a floating mask. My opinion of the film has grown slightly since seeing it, as I feel deeply affected by the story of the O'Brien family and their beautiful children. As there is very little dialogue for a film that stretches nearly two and half hours, the actors are required to act through their facial expressions. The adults are great, but it is the three young boys who stand out. Do not go and see The Three of Life with any expectations. The Tree of Life is visually stunning but the fragmented story often stalls the emotional journey of the film. There is great surprise and beauty within the film, and although I would change a great number of things, it is nonetheless a visually powerful film.

My rating: 3 stars out of 4 (the story itself merits a higher rating, but Malick's experimentation is not a total success).

1 comment:

  1. This is a great assessment of a film that I think most of the audience was not expecting to be so dense. Certainly the experimental nature can be off putting for some people and I think it was unfortunate that the late hour of our viewing may have impacted my ability to focus. While the acting and cinematography is superb in a way that I haven't seen in quite some time, the pacing of the film left something to be desired. What's more, it seemed as though Malick was helming two films in one.

    The meandering non-linear examination of the experiences which sum up a person's life, inter spliced with an experimental examination of existence as a whole. The effect was a film which at times seemed to suffer from extreme pacing issues but which, upon further examination, was anchoring its human story in the much larger universality of life as we know it. Clever, certainly moving, but I'm not sure it truly served the story in the manner that it was intended. There is only so long you can watch images of space while a operatic soprano wails over top without thinking you'd like to get back to the raw emotional power of the O'Brian family. And it is that examination (and that film as it were) at which Malick excels. I cannot say anything negative about that aspect of the story as it was nuanced and delicate in a simply beautiful way. Even Brad Pitt's performance (which I felt was a little one dimensional) served the story very well.

    All in all this is one you won't want to miss.

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