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Friday, June 17, 2011

The Tree of Life (Limited Release Date: 5-27-2011)

        WARNING: The following people should NOT see The Tree of Life UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES:

People who can't stand non-plot-oriented movies, People who need closure, People who require a movie to have a sense of humor about itself, People who seek to keep their entertainment and their theology separated, People who are particularly adverse to pretentiousness, People for whom brevity or the lack there of is a deal breaker, People who find dialogue-free passages in movies to be dull, and, perhaps most of all, people to whom, 'weird,' and, 'trippy,' are dirty words. I say this not as a means of declaring one group of film-goers as superior to another; With the exception of a couple of items on the list, I find all of those movie-enjoyment-requirements to be pretty reasonable. The simple fact is that The Tree of Life is a movie tailor made to coax strong responses from its viewers, be they fervent love, or fiery hate.

        Now to the hardest part of this review: The summary. Not only is The Tree of Life a mind/time-bending, jump-cut-happy sort of movie, but it also strikes me as a film whose desired effect might be more deeply felt with a lack of pre-existing knowledge. I'll do my best: The Tree of Life is the story of a man (Sean Penn) battling with depression and existential doubt. The movie is the chronicle of his search for answers, reaching as far back as the creation of the cosmos and life itself, then honing all the way in on One family of Five. In a '50s Texas suburb, Jack (Hunter McCracken) and his Two brothers are raised in Two hugely conflicting manners, warmth, playfulness, and love being showered on them by their mother (Jessica Chastian) while their father (Brad Pitt) rules with a clenched jaw and an unwavering devotion to discipline and manners. We watch it all in only vaguely linear fashion, intermixed with rampant shots of symbolic trees and waterfalls. Oh, yeah, and Dinosaurs. If this doesn't really sound like your cup of tea, then I can promise you that it isn't.

        Like the movie itself, Writer/Director Terrance Malick has proved a divisive and elusive figure over the years. Releasing his first movie coming up on Four decades ago (1973's Badlands), Malick has managed to stay almost completely out of the public eye, thanks in large part to the fact that The Tree of Life is only his Fifth feature film in his lengthy career. His works always have a sweeping, dream-like feel to them, and each is an aesthetic marvel with beauty and surrealism splashed all over the screen. Not only does The Tree of Life not shy away from this, but it takes it head on, darting and swaying with dream-logic abounding. Master-class camera man Emmanuel Lubezki, in only his second movie since completely blowing the minds of everyone who saw Children of Men, shots the living hell out of the thing, just about every single second of Tree teeming with staggering beauty. Its all set to yet another stunning score by Alexandre Desplat, likely the hottest composer on the filmic scene today, having missed out on an Oscar nod only once in the last Five years (His nominations include The King's Speech, Fantastic Mr. Fox, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and The Queen). Throw in Pitt and Penn, and you have some pretty high-profile players trying to make Malick's vision come to life.

        And come to life it does; Complete, fully-realized, awe-inspiring, and infuriating life. The winner of the Palme d'Or at this year's Cannes film festival (an honor not unlike Best Picture at the Oscars) despite receiving a hardy helping of boos at the end of its screening, The Tree of Life is undeniably accomplished, but whether you think its accomplished a masterpiece or a war crime is all up to the viewer. Its a powerful, provocative piece, difficult to discuss with anyone who has yet to see it, and even harder to stop thinking about upon its conclusion. There are things that I wish it did differently, but this is obviously the work of a singular, feverishly inspired film-maker, a man making strong, bold, purposeful choices, knowing exactly how to elicit a reaction. It is quite possibly the only movie that I've ever seen that I would readily describe as being about everything, and as such, Tree can over-reach upon occasion, an intense sense of grandeur and purpose lofting off of every frame, not a drop of self-awareness to be found. Turns out, if you want to explain it all, it's best to leave irony behind.

        If it's not completely obvious by now, I am of the mind that The Tree of Life is a classic in the making, a puzzle of profundity, stitched together by a Director whose mystery and pre-existing filmography will ensure that this one gets viewed and discussed for years to come. Comparisons to 2001: A Space Odyssey strike me as pretty fair: Both films send some viewers towards the exits in the first Fifteen minutes, while convincing others that they're hearing the voice of god. I'm pretty far over on the latter half of the argument, and even if I can't quite convince myself that Tree is a perfect movie, the intrigue of its philosophies and the power of its images have made it impossible for me to go a half hour without thinking about it since I first watched it. The Tree of Life is almost more an experience than a movie, concerned more with the gut feeling it creates than the linear story that it tells. It's a complete, absolute, and undeniable must-watch for anyone who considers themselves a true film enthusiast, all while being utter toxic waste for anyone who just wanted a good night at the movies. That's the power of its accomplishment: That Tree will almost exclusively be ranked a Zero or a Ten by all those who see it. In a 2011 that is slated to break the record for most sequels in a calendar year, I can't help but find the limitless nature of its ambition inspiring, and the degree to which this inspiration, whether wayward or heavenly, is fully realized is nothing short of a towering achievement.

Grade: A+/F


  1. I'm now looking forward to this movie more than pretty much anything else... while at the same time, I'm hoping I never see it... Look what you've done!

  2. Great review! I made a few similar comments in mine...though that was mainly a brief proclamation of how stunning this film is :)