Tuesday, 13 September 2011

“No one who loved the way of grace came to a bad end”

The Tree of Life: directed and written by Terrence Malick

I came in late to the party in terms of watching and reviewing The Tree of Life, so I couldn’t escape the faint murmur of appreciation that ran wrought over the general critical nooks and crannies I frequent. My knowledge of the film, though, was still essential nonexistent as to Malick’s take on the story of the Midwestern couple and their three sons. Oftentimes I tend to place, sometimes more than necessary, an overemphasis on the importance of film titles and The Tree of Life (the name) reeks of an almost bombastic pretentiousness. The gargantuan concept it suggests does not seem like one which can comprehensively be addressed by a single film, but Malick attempts to do just that.
The take is a deeply personal look at an elusive concept. The opening monologue gives us a stirring quote as Chastain’s mother figure ruminates on the attributes of grace, against those of nature. Grace, she tells us, is selfless in its very existence and depends on eschewing selfishness and putting everything on the line. Like most things in this 140 minute film, its appearance is not incidental. The Tree of Life, in many ways, functions as an exercise in grace, for Malick attempts to address the gamut of the world’s scope from creation to the afterlife with a humility which occasionally seems at odds with his intent.
To ground the larger than life concepts addressed the story is anchored by Jack, the oldest of the three sons. As it moves through the myriad of familial issues specific intent is placed on that tenuous relationship between father and son because it is an adult Jack’s fragmented memories which seem to be bookends which act as binds for the film. In spite of, or perhaps because of, the immediate simplicity with which the story the adult Jack – portrayed by Sean Penn as a listless adult lost in architecture – remembers, Malick structures the film a bit esoterically. The family’s life plays out shot after beautiful shot where we see flashes (more than experience) Jack’s childhood. His father is typically authoritarian, and his mother is essentially the essence of motherhood. It’s all nebulously created, deliberately so I presume, for in another aha moment Chastain’s mother tell us that unless you love, your life will flash by. The disillusioned Jack seems loveless, and even though it clocks in at over two hours his life is flashing by.

Because the film that depends on the flashes it gives us its cinematography becomes its most important facet and it’s beautifully shot. We see the towering sky scrapers of the present, a butterfly, cows grazing, and the planets as they align and alignment seems to be a theme on occasion. Even as it veers into the self absorbed (sporadically going against its own gracious attempts) there is the striking sense that Malick is making precisely the film he intends to. He constantly eschews his actors for his own inclinations (still Pitt, McCracken and a luminous Jessica Chastain shine) and that in itself makes sense because the universe does not begin or end with humans.
The film enters its most emotionally vibrant portions when father and son face off and with a film that I feel depends explicitly on the finding of emotional resonance I waver because Malick’s beautiful creation fails to move me. It’s a curious film to adjudge simply because it ambles at its own pace making up its own rules as it goes along. It is a work of art, and its content – perhaps – presents a devastatingly little for us to work with. But, in its deliberately created beauty it wields the power to enchant even if not as profoundly as I would hope.



Castor said...

Glad you finally got to see The Tree of Life Andrew. There isn't much left to be said that hasn't been said 50 times already. Each viewer has to make up his own interpretation of this movie and as a result, the experience will be totally different from one viewer to the next. No doubt, it's a demanding film, enigmatic in its beauty and a lot more art than entertainment.

CrazyCris said...

Damn! This still isn't out in Spain! I believe it hits screens this weekend, and I'll definitely be going to see it asap! ;o)

Nick Prigge said...

"It is a work of art." For whatever reason that didn't truly snap into focus until I read your review. Not a Work Of Art-work of art, but like a work of art in an art museum. Everyone gets their chance to look it over and interpret it and some will think it's ridiculously pretentious and some will think it's beyond explanation and some will think it really IS a Work Of Art and so on and so forth.

TomS said...

Andrew, I applaud you for wrestling with this film. By now, the reputation it has earned almost commands a certain response, which is unfortunate.

It is simple, maybe simplistic, certainly profound, and blessedly "different". It experiments with film grammar the way Joyce experimented with written language, but it more immediate, and doesn't move in ways we expect it to, or even want it to.

It's good that there are still a few filmmakers who are allowed to take chances. Their failures, to me, are more interesting than the success of most blockbusters.

I have to make a friendly challenge to Castor's idea that a film can be more more art than entertainment. A lot of people are, in fact, very entertained by art. Otherwise, great comments from Castor, and Nick (above).

"Tree of Life" is only an anamoly because it is a rare film these days that is not assembled by committee and marketed to death before release.

If "Tree of Life" were released in an era that routinely offered such big-screen fare as "2001", "Easy Rider", "Performance", "Fellini Satyricon", "The Passion of Anna", "Zabriskie Point", "Midnight Cowboy", "Medium Cool" and "Women in Love", it would be taken more in stride, and not considered such an enigma.

Runs Like A Gay said...

So glad to see you finally got a chance to see the film event of the year, Andrew, and whatever personal thoughts we may have about the films structure it remains that.

I see in your review you concentrate on the family dynamics - clearly the most successful element - and don't mention the strange jaunt to the beginning of time. What did you make of that?

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

everyone sorry for the late response, you all bring up some good points.

castor i definitely agree with you on how each viewer will have to decide what the movie is about for them. it that enigmatic way it's sort of like a film that you could use for psychoanalysis, i think.

crazy cris looking forward to your thoughts.

nick i DO think it's pretentious, even despite its humility. it's sort of a baffling experience, really, but generally in a good way.

tom good points, always. i think i can definitely see the parallels with 2001 but i'm not a fan of kubrick's film. but it's still a very important one, next to certified copy for the most audacious feature i've seen all year.

ben i don't want to argue with the director's intent, because obviously he knows what he wants but it's stunning but feels oddly superfluously as you watch it. however, i get it in retrospect, the ending is a lot more jaunty. but as i said, it's his vision - and what a vision!