Under 800: The Tree of Life (2011)

Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life is quite possibly the most frustrating, uneven movie I’ve ever seen. It was also the most profound cinematic experience I’ve ever had.

As Preisner’s Lacrimosa crescendos, the dust finally settles. What started off as a slightly confusing sequence showing the birth of everything that is, turns into a visualization of the grandeur of existence. We see galaxies in their full brilliance from impossible angles that make the viewer feel immaterial, a ghost flying through the beauty of this finite Universe that we have found ourselves in. We see the clouds of creation, we move towards them, through them, despite their size, despite the physical impossibility of it all. It was at this moment, as Lacrimosa reached its very peak, that I felt The Tree of Life had achieved something unimaginably profound and meaningful – it had dwarfed the viewer. It’s a visual experience that beats even Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s art in its most raw, unfettered form, and it’s cinema as Tarkovsky saw it – no symbolism, no ideology or attempts to make a point, no place for rationalization or coherent thought. It’s an emotional experience that gives a sort of nebulous appreciation for the very essence of being and nothingness. It’s not something that can be precisely put into words, because it’s not meant to be. I urge everyone to watch at least the first 40 minutes of The Tree of Life.

And this is where the frustration sets in. The rest of the film focuses on the life of an American small town family in the 1950s. Mr and Mrs O’Brien have three kids and we see them growing up, but the story is mostly told from the point of view of Young Jack, the oldest of the children. He goes through multiple phases during his adolescence, from witnessing the death of one of his friends and questioning the existence of God at a rather tender age, to praying for his father’s death and even considering bringing it about himself. Sounds interesting enough, right?

Except it isn’t. What we get is a jumbled mess of poor cinematography and unlikable characters. Constant close up shots, dutch angles and poor cutting and editing make the experience a particularly jarring one, as the viewer struggles to understand what’s happening on-screen. The themes this latter part of the movie explores aren’t particularly hard to spot. There’s contemplation on the constant cycle of life and death (which is a recurring theme even outside of the family’s story, as evidenced by the frequent underwater shots of overhead waves, penetrated by rays of light, and the pitch black transition shots that linger long enough to make their presence known) and its effect on those of us left behind after a person’s passing; there’s religion, spirituality, a child’s realization that their childhood is slipping away from them and there’s nothing they can do to stop the process, innocence, anger, the list goes on. And that’s exactly the problem – while trying to tackle almost every single aspect of human nature, The Tree of Life fails to flesh out and truly explore any one of them. The result is the cinematic equivalent of name dropping during a rap song. It’s void of any sort of substance to the point where it’s almost insulting at times. I firmly believe that the only driving force behind this part of the movie is the viewer’s imagination and projection. I could definitely understand someone who grew up in the same environment enjoying this part of The Tree of Life, but it did very little for me. I appreciate what Malick wanted to achieve here, but it just felt like a complete mess, despite the interesting yet underdeveloped themes. Oh, and there’s Sean Penn’s part of the movie that is somewhat confusing, to the point where even he’s admitted he had no idea what he was doing.

And this isn’t to say I disliked this movie. If I were to compile a list of my ten favorite films of all time, The Tree of Life would be a strong contender for a spot in it. If only because the first half of it left me awestruck and managed to transport me into a place that’s both real and magical at the same time. In a sense, The Tree of Life suffers from the Full Metal Jacket syndrome. Kubrick’s film about the Vietnam war also starts off incredibly strong, a beautiful look into the way young men’s identities were subverted and replaced by predatory instincts. The main character of that first part is Pvt. Leonard Lawrence, who is out of shape and out of depth in the military world. He’s bullied, beaten and shamed into complete madness and, in his madness, kills Gunnery Sergeant Hartman, a vile man with no redeeming qualities whatsoever, before turning the rifle on himself in a haunting scene that showcased the cold determination of a suicidal man. Then the movie moves on to Vietnam and loses a lot of its steam, though the drop-off isn’t even close to being as steep as that of The Tree of Life. Are both of these movies worth watching? Definitely. But don’t be surprised if you’re left feeling that they could’ve been so, so much more.

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