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Matt's The Tree of Life Review

Updated on July 26, 2011

Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life is without a doubt the most interesting film I’ve seen in years. Here, at last, is a film that truly breaks the mold and strives to create an experience genuinely different from any other film. As someone who has seen countless films both good and bad in his lifetime, originality is always refreshing, even when it challenges me a bit.

Observations

- There is a plot of sorts to be found in Tree of Life, but it is not presented to the viewer in a linear fashion. Those who have seen Memento or 21 Grams will have experience with non-linear plotlines, but Tree of Life goes much further with it than those films do.

- Make no mistake, Tree of Life is every inch a surrealistic film. Think of the works of Stanley Kubrick and David Lynch only much more abstract.

- Tree of Life is very abstract and impressionistic. There is precious little dialogue in this film if you discount voice-overs. Almost substituting for the dialogue is music. Tree of Life has a lush arrangement of classical music juxtaposed with its imagery. I’ve never seen another film so reliant on music to tell its story and evoke emotion.

- As out there as Tree of Life is at times, there’s a lot to connect with in this film as well, most to do with family. This film captures what it is to be an adult looking back at childhood in a way that I’ve never seen before. Particularly powerful was how the film presented the way we remember our parents. Bits and pieces, flashes of moments and emotions both positive and negative.

- Tree of Life will make you think, and it demands your undivided attention if you’re ever to make any sort of sense of it. The good news: it is worth the effort.

- I can’t stress enough, the most important thing is to keep an open mind. I’ve never seen anything quite like The Tree of Life before, it is a fascinating work of art.

Performances

- Brad Pitt turns in perhaps his most down to earth and complex performance to date as the father. Without saying too much, his character frightened and infuriated me one minute, and tugged at my heartstrings the next.

- Hunter McCracken, perhaps the true star of the film, turns in a show-stopping performance as young Jack. He plays his character very real, complete with all the imperfections and insecurities of youth. To say more would probably constitute spoilers, but I will say this much, I was very impressed. If he chooses to stay with acting, I’ll be on the lookout for him.

- Jessica Chastain was radiant in the role of the mother. Beautiful and compassionate, almost angelic in the eyes of her sons.

- I think it bears mentioning again how little dialogue there is in this film, so the performers often had to communicate with expressions and mannerisms rather than words. That can’t have been easy, and the academy ought to take note of that when considering nominations the next Oscar season.

Music, Cinematography and Special Effects

- The music in this film was fantastic. Practically a 2 hour crash course in classical compositions, in addition to the score composed by the fantastic Alexandre Desplat. As I said earlier, the music was even more critical a component to Tree of Life than the dialogue. It’s an extraordinary score.

- The Cinematography was fantastic; this is an exceptionally visual film. In fact there isn’t a single shot of this film that isn’t beautiful in some way, Malick nails everything from shot composition to the sets and the lighting.

- The special effects were very well conceived; particularly effective was the “creation” sequence, which almost certainly had a ton of computer generated images which for the most part blended fairly seamlessly in with the images from the Hubble telescope and the shots of microscopic organisms. The dinosaurs were perhaps not as convincing as the ones in Jurassic Park - where you could practically feel their teeth – but they got the job done.

The Bottom Line

Tree of Life breaks so many of the conventions of filmmaking as we know it that analyzing this film may be more constructive than criticizing it – but that is another article altogether. Tree of Life is unsurprisingly polarizing in its critical reception, with some labeling it unintelligible, others a work of genius. “Interesting” is as far as I’m willing to go without seeing it a second time. There’s a lot to think about here. One thing is for sure, Malick knew what he was doing when he made this film. The editing is amazing, as is the direction and the sheer scope and vision of this film. We can criticize The Tree of Life for being abstract and ambiguous, and for lacking both a narrative and specificity in its characterization, but all of that was intentional. It’s my opinion that we don’t have sufficient frame of reference with which to criticize this film effectively. Until we know where Tree of Life fits within the context of filmmaking, I can’t really rate its quality in relation to other films. So for the first time ever, I’m omitting my traditional rating out of 10.

Tree of life is an undeniably fascinating film that did not win the Palme d'Or at Cannes by accident. This is not a film I would recommend for everyone; it is very emotional, very intellectual, but not terribly accessible. Nevertheless, I connected with this movie and the questions it asked. I can’t wait to see it again, and I can’t wait to discuss this film with others that have seen it, for surely this is a film that will be analyzed and puzzled over for years to come.

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