Summary: A highly emotional, philosophically rich story, beautifully told with all the subjectivity and hypnotic effects of a dream. It is not for amateurs.
Review: Films run along a spectrum of complexity. On the one end, there stands the average romantic comedy or action film, with a plot recycled with new faces, locations and set pieces; the outcome is predictable, the box office dollars practically guaranteed, and its only goal is to entertain for a couple of hours. On the other end, there is pure creativity, meat so rare it is nigh-impossible for average moviegoers to digest; this is film as dream and art, a trip of the mind and soul, and its goal is to baptize the viewer. Here stands ‘The Tree of Life’.
Now to clarify, a film closer to the entertainment side is not necessarily any less a valuable work of art. A light adventure like the original ‘Star Wars’ is impossible to compare with a philosophical journey like ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’. They are both perfect, though one is comparable to a circle and the other to a sphere. This is why I abandoned quantitative rating systems, as they end up cutting apples and oranges with the same slicer, so to speak. There are now two films that stand as my favorites of the summer, and they cover the spectrum — one is ‘Super 8’, previously reviewed, and the other is ‘The Tree of Life’. Both are emotionally powerful, but they access different parts of my spirit.
The film’s writer and director, Terrence Malick, has a simple method of breaking a potentially rudimentary plot down into a meditation — instead of following a three-act structure, he explores every moment as a memory, fragmented and disorganized, overlapping and meandering, not even coming together in the end to form a cohesive whole. The structure, in short, belongs to the viewer. We have to assemble the film into a story, much as we do our own memories. The beauty of this is that there is never a single beat of Hollywood artificiality to shield us from the action. It is there, as frustrating as life, engaging us. The picture is hypnotic, even when you feel its length. Malick’s fluid narrative allows him to duck in and out of perspectives and realities, sometimes jumping into dreams and fantasies without warning, presenting everything as an immediate, pressing question. These questions pack the film, without answers, from start to finish. To say ‘The Tree of Life’ is challenging is to say that fish swim in the sea. Not everyone is a fisherman, and not everyone will be up for ‘The Tree of Life’.
If acting were my profession, there are several auteurs I’d love to work with — Scorsese, Nolan, Spielberg, Tarantino, and now I can add Malick to that list. Brad Pitt, Sean Penn and Jessica Chastain, not to mention the remarkable child actors who anchor the picture, Hunter McCracken, Laramie Eppler, and Tye Sheridan, never once blandly read their lines or strike an artificial pose for a composition. They simply live in the frame, buoyed by the organic nature of Malick’s direction and Emmanuel Lubezki‘s cinematography. This is a surely a dream for any performer, the chance to disappear completely into a person who, interpreted by the randomness of Malick’s narrative, is at once naked and mysterious.
Usually I try to explore the philosophical themes of films I review, but in this instance I think it’s better for the film itself to pose its questions. That is, after all, the entire point behind it. I can’t sufficiently answer them, either, and even if I could, I doubt that articulating it here would affect anything of your potential experience. The movie is a paradox, a story without a moral conclusion that forces you to make one, but lacks the hopelessness of ambiguity. This is why it is an artistic experience and not entertainment; it does not check boxes. It forces you to change to better appreciate it, or simply discard it in disgust. Fools will complain about the money they wasted on admission; they are free to spend it on ‘Transformers’, next time, and be all the poorer for it.
As you can imagine, it’s almost impossible not to have a visceral response to a film like this. To carry my meat analogy further, if a person with an immature taste in movies tries to chew ‘The Tree of Life’, they are likely to spit it out and complain. Steak is not for babies. You need teeth and knives to take in an experience like this, and it helps if it’s not your first meal. It is, even for an experienced cinephile, positively dizzying. There are many “gateway drugs” I’d recommend before taking the plunge, among them the works of Christopher Nolan, Charlie Kaufman, Frederico Fellini, Stanley Kubrick and the Brothers Coen, though the latter four all have advanced entries in their filmographies that stand right alongside ‘The Tree of Life’.
In short, this is a film I recommend for people who unabashedly love movies as an art form, not a diversion. It is almost guaranteed to surprise you. It will, one way or another, move you.