Wednesday, 22 February 2012

The Tree of Life

Academy Award Nominations: 3
  • Best Picture
  • Best Director (Terrence Malick)
  • Best Cinematography (Emmanuel Lubezki)

The universe is born. Earth struggles into existance, dinosaurs roam the land until a meteor wipes them out. In the 21st century, Jack is depressed in his life, and a tree being planted at his office makes him reminisce about his upbringing. In the 1950's/60's, Jack and his two brothers are raised in highly religious Waco, Texas by his two parents: Mrs O'Brien represents the way of grace, teaching her children about the wonders of the world around them whilst being nurturing and supporting, whilst Mr O'Brien represents the way of nature, preparing his children for the harsh realities of the world through a strict and authoritative upbringing. As Jack grows up, he faces the conflict between grace and nature, and must decide which path of his parents' paths to follow, if any...

The Tree of Life is an odd beast, which is an understatement given it's the latest work by Terrence Malick, a filmmaker notorious for his privacy and gaps between work. He took a 20 year break between Days of Heaven in 1978 and The Thin Red Line in 1998, took another 7 years to release The New World in 2005, then took 6 years to release this in 2011. Even then, The Tree of Life is based on a script entitled Q, focusing on the origins of the universe, which Malick had been working on for nearly 30 years since the release of Days of Heaven, so it's little surprise that this is only Malick's fifth release since 1973. What it shows is Malick's insistence on fine-tuning and doing things right, even if it takes him a decade or so. Time doesn't seem to be an issue with Malick though, as he quite successfully covers about 4 and a half billion years of history in The Tree of Life in about 2 and a half hours.

The Tree of Life is a rare thing, in that it's a mainstream arthouse film. The ideas and concepts covered here are far beyond any standard film, and the way in which the film has been shot makes it seem more like a painting than a film; each shot has been carefully crafted and contains very little dialogue to get its ideas across. In fact, there's little to no dialogue throughout the film, the story is told almost entirely through striking visual images and brief lines of voiceover representing internal monologues, all set against a majestic soundtrack. The narrative is entirely non-linear as well, moving the family drama from the 1950's and 1960's into the modern day, before going back to the creation of Earth and somehow relating it to the family in Texas. It shouldn't make sense, but somehow it does. Everything fits together because of how artistically the film's images are created, leaving the film to resemble a poem or a painting, or any other art form other than a motion picture.

Obviously, because of the lack of dialogue, strong performances are required of its leading actors, and they deliver in spades. Brad Pitt is good here as the stern father, struggling to balance his love for his children with his desire to see them grow up and be successful and able to carry themselves in a world which he sees as having gone to hell. Jessica Chastain is also great here, arguably better in this than she was in The Help, and this without the help of words and extended dialogue to portray her character's desire to raise her children more freely whilst placating her depressed and aggressive husband. The kids also do well here, especially Hunter McCracken who plays the young Jack, as the plot essentially revolves around him and the choices he makes during adolescence. He performs well, especially so for a child actor, in a difficult role as a child being raised under contradictory and often clashing ways of thinking. Sean Penn makes a few brief appearances as the adult Jack in the modern day, but all he does is wander about and talk to a couple of people, not enough to warrant any kind of review for his 'performance'.

The Tree of Life deals with a lot of concepts, and even though it has a fairly long run time, it still seems excessively short for the amount of ground it covers. The creation of Earth is told through flickering lights and explosions, really beautiful and inspiring imagery. Then, there's the dinosaur scenes. Oh dear. The dinosaurs look terrible to begin, look totally out of place, and the scenes look out of place in the film in general. It doesn't dwell on that though, as most of the action focuses on Jack's Texas upbringing. Constant whispers of existential questions about life over the top leave its audience thinking about deeper things, which can be good, but not when you're also trying to watch and follow a film which makes its audience work hard enough to find their own meaning and answers. More than anything, The Tree of Life is a brave attempt to create a film with real meaning, and sometimes it nails it, but sometimes it's way off the mark.

Overall, The Tree of Life is not something to be taken lightly. If you're going to watch it, be prepared to pour in a lot of effort, energy and thought into it; this definitely isn't something you can fade in and out of in the background. The only film I can think to compare it to in terms of themes and what it's trying to achieve is 2001: A Space Odyssey, and whilst I think The Tree of Life is far more stylistic, looks far more beautiful on screen and adds more emotion, 2001 is a far, far easier watch and its plot line and structure makes it a more likeable film as well. It's a solid effort, and it definitely won't be for everyone this, but it might be worth giving it a go if you're in the mood for something more than your average Hollywood blockbuster as this is certainly the remedy for that. This may not be my kind of thing, but I can certainly appreciate the effort and artistry put into this. Let me put it like this: The Tree of Life covered 4 and a half billion years in 2 and a half hours. The Hangover Part II did nothing in 90 minutes. You decide which one is more worthwhile.

Rating: ***

The Tree of Life was released on 8th July 2011 and is no longer being shown in cinemas.