The Tree of Life Review
In 1968, Stanley Kubrick forever changed the science fiction film genre with his magnum opus, 2001: A Space Odyssey. Ever since then, filmmakers have been trying to top the film that is the epitome of the sci-fi films. There was even a direct sequel to 2001: A Space Odyssey, 2010: The Year We Make Contact, made in 1984. Unfortunately, no sci-fi film has topped Kubrick's masterpiece or even reached its level of greatness. In comes Terrence Malick, who some call the heir to the void in filmmaking that was left behind when Kubrick passed. The Tree of Life is definitely not a science fiction film but it is the first film that can truly claim it has captured the same essence Kubrick's opus has.
The Tree of Life not only takes place on an astronomical level, but asks questions that most filmmakers wouldn't dare ask during the course of the film. Why are we here? Why can life be so brutal at times? Are just a few of some of the complex questions Malick raises during the 2+ hour runtime of the film. Yes, the film will lose many viewers along the way, but, like Kubrick's film, the more effort you put into watching The Tree of Life, the richer the reward you will receive by the end of it. Such ambition from a filmmaker is a marvel to witness (especially in an age of mindless blockbusters raking in major money at the box office).
Malick makes this film his most intimate to date as it seems large portions of the film are autobiographical in nature, especially in the middle section of the film that follows the childhood of Jack (played by Hunter McCracken giving the best performance by a child this year). Oddly, the film is also Malick's most epic yet as it follows the history of the universe from the creation of the cosmos (a sequence that rivals "Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite") all the way to the demise of our galaxy. That this film even works at all is a true miracle and this combination of the intimate and the epic to such a level is something that I don't even think Kubrick had the skill to do. To be fair, Malick has a powerful tool that Kubrick never possessed. That tool comes in the form of possibly the best cinematographer in cinematic history: Emmanuel Lubezki. Lubezki does his best work since Children of Men (where he captures the chaos found at the end of humanity through his technologically astounding tracking shots) as he perfectly captures the beauty of nature and the imperfections of humanity.
Despite being considered by many to be just props in a Malick film, the actors are great. Despite a lot of improvisation being used by Malick on the part of the younger members of the cast, the actors that play the boys (McCracken, Laramie Eppler and Tye Sheridan) do good work. The true powerhouses of the cast are, however, Jessica Chastain and Brad Pitt. Chastain has been a true revelation this year (she also starred in The Help and The Debt). In The Tree of Life, she perfects the use of subtle acting as you constantly forget that she is just an actress in a movie rather than a real life mother to the boys. Pitt, on the other hand, gets to do some scene-chewing. His performance as the father of the family is his best since The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. It seems Pitt is at his best when he is playing semi-villains with ambiguous motives. Pitt deserves a lot of credit for creating an initially unlikable character that can create sympathy from the viewer at any moment and for taking on a role unlike anything else that has been on screen in a while.
To find anything wrong with this film, you really have to dig deep. Its one fault is that it has a irritating sound mix. The constant change from hush whispers to the bangs and the booms of the creation of the cosmos get annoying real fast. It is easy to see this was intentional (as the whispers convey to us that the characters are talking to God and the booms and bangs help you realize how small these characters' lives are in relation to the universe), but it results in a failed attempt to add a little more to this already dense film.
The Tree of Life is a masterpiece and Terrence Malick not only has a companion piece to his predecessor's magnum opus, but a magnum opus to call his own.
I thought I would discuss my interpretation of the film here. One of the main things I like about this film (and many hate it for) is that this a film with no clear plot. Everything is up to the interpretation of the viewer, so I hope my thoughts don't intrude upon yours. I would just like to bring up a few points for possible discussion. I thought everything that does not take place with Sean Penn (who does nothing but I think does serve a purpose) at his house and the office is from the viewpoint of God. While sleeping on the day of the anniversary of his brother's death, Jack (played by McCracken and Penn), who has had a falling out with God, asks God to show evidence of what he has seen. God then reveals Jack's mother asked similar questions by showing her reaction to his brother's death. At this point Jack wakes up and goes to work where he begins to remember his childhood and God shows him more (including how the world got to where it was). He also reveals that he has heard all of Jack's (and his family's) prayers which is what the whispering voiceovers are. Jack is the perfect example of how a human life as his parents are the perfect examples of nature and grace. When the two are dueling, life is not good for humanity. When the two are at peace with each other, life is good for humanity. Still depressed, Jack is then shown by God how the world will end and what the afterlife is like (the beach scenes). The antepenultimate scene is the long take of the field of sunflowers. Considering God is constantly represented throughout the film by light (Sun), this scene just reinforces that he is everywhere. The penultimate scene is of Jack looking around strangely and then cracking a small smile. This is Jack looking at the world for the first time with the new perspective God has given him and finally becoming a believer of God again (knowing that everything will be okay in the end). The final scene of the film is the long take of the bridge which just once again reinforces Jack's connection to God has been resurrected.
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