I have to make an admission, one I’m not proud of. The first time I watched The Tree of Life I watched it for the wrong reasons. Each year I aim to watch all of the Oscar nominated films. The Tree of Life was the last film I had to watch leading into the 2012 Oscars. It was one I had already preconceived that I would hate it. Before I even pressed play on the DVD remote the film had no chance. I stupidly gave the film a 1/2 star rating, a rating I rarely hand out, and proceeded to call it the worst film of 2011. It was the worst thing I’ve ever done as a film viewer.
For a good amount of time I felt comfortable with this rating and my opinion of the film, to the point I (unfortunately) turned a lot of people off watching it. Recently though, as I began to watch Malick’s early films and fall in love with them (Badlands is becoming one of my favourite films), I felt I really needed to rewatch this. I needed to clear the hate out of my head, I needed to get to a point where I wanted to watch The Tree of Life. And I here I am, I have reached that point so I sat down and watched it, I watched it like I’d never seen it…
The Tree of Life is minimalist in its story and is open to interpretation. The film follows Jack as he grows up in Waco, Texas. Jack’s mother is sweet and nurturing, she sees the good everywhere and she wants to raise her children the same way. Jack’s father on the other hand is strict and angry, he sees the world as exploitative and untrustworthy, a world that has always kept him down and stopped him from following his dreams. Jack grows up in this environment, unsure of which parent to follow, he grows up confused and misguided, resulting in a lonely adulthood and a disconnection with his family.
The Tree of Life is one of the most breathtaking films ever made. Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography is gorgeous, it is a moving work of art. Pause at any time in the film and you’ll be presented with a frame that could be printed on a canvas and put up in a gallery. It is transfixing and sucks you in, whether you care for it thematically or not, there is enough emotion and power in the visuals alone to satisfy even the most disgruntled viewer.
Whilst the visuals are what most will walk away in awe of, many of the other elements within the film are equally as brilliant. Hunter McCraken, as young Jack, is superb. It is the best ‘child’ performance I’ve seen in years and should have been considered for awards contention. He perfectly captures the free-spirit of his mother and the smouldering fear of life that is within his father. McCraken, with few words, is able to take an audience’s breath away purely through his expressions and his movements. Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain are also fantastic to watch, Chastain especially is beautiful and her moments of wonder, like the butterfly scene, are splendid.
Terrence Malick’s direction is crazy. For anybody that has seen his other films they’d instantly recognise this as a Malick film and would be more than ready for what is ahead. For those new to Malick it takes a while to warm to his directing style. The Tree of Life is not the best film to start with if you are a Malick novice (I’d recommend going in release order). The film is brimming with big ideas and big theories. Malick’s personal ideologies are in every frame of The Tree of Life, however he is so subtle about it that you often feel like you are getting swamped without actually knowing what is swamping you. It is his most ambitious film and his least straight forward, to get to the heart you’d need to watch it a dozen times and discuss it incessantly with film and art geeks. It is a huge task and one that can’t be accomplished without planning.
If there is one thing I don’t love it is the film’s editing, which frankly frustrates me to tears. There is a story here that everybody could become really invested in, but the disjointedness of the film keeps the audience at an arms length. By the time you get to the fascinating second half it has already lost a lot of people because the first half is maddening. I’m not a filmmaker, but I feel the second half needed to be longer and further explored. The creation sequences, whilst fantastic to watch, feel unnecessary when compared to the rest of the film and perhaps should have been cut. The air of mystery surrounding the themes and openness of interpretation are perfect, but if old Jack was intercut into the footage from his childhood, as if he was reliving it, the end result could have been a film worthy of being hailed a masterpiece.
The Tree of Life is growing on me. It has been 4 months since I watched it for this review and in that time I’ve had plenty of time to reflect on it. Thematically it is incredible, Malick’s brain is huge and the secrets he fills his film with cannot be fathomed. He is with out a doubt an absolute genius, however his films are personal art projects and not films for a wider audience. I’ve grown a lot since I first saw The Tree of Life and as I continue to grow as a film observer my opinion on this will likely swell. At the moment though, The Tree of Life is merely a gorgeous and interesting think piece, not a film I want to wrap myself in and cuddle for the rest of eternity.