The Tree of Life.
I’d just like to extend a gigantic middle finger to the final Harry Potter, Vue cinemas and the Odeon for not showing this film. Travelling to Cardiff was a fun day out but an inconvenience nonetheless. Although I did get to enjoy Cineworld and it’s much better screens than Vue. Actually, it was a sort of blessing in disguise because this is a film looking for extreme artistic merit and an early Oscar nomination for its cinematography. In fact, it should win it. I read a review which said that if you took a screencap at any moment, it would be like a gorgeous and professional photograph and I concur. Terrence Malick is truly beautiful with his camera work, his colours, his depth, his composition, his everything. It’s visually astounding.
Plot: The story centres around a family with three boys in the 1950s. The eldest son witnesses the loss of innocence.
The story centres around a middle-aged Jack who is recollecting his childhood from thinking about the death of his younger brother. It focusses on his relationships with his paradox-esque parents and the loss of innocence. It never specifies how he dies or who dies but that one of the brother dies at the young age of nineteen. This means that Jack as a crisis of faith and - in his middle-age - thinks about the the creation of life, the meaning of life and what is the best way to live life. It’s also a philosophical take on when a child starts losing their naivety.
The film starts in the 1960s-ish with the mother, Mrs O’Brien (Jessica Chastain), receiving the terrible news that one of her sons has died. We then see Jack (Sean Penn) as an architect in present day, thinking about the loss of his brother which triggers other thoughts. This then starts from the start - but not the start of the story; the literal start of everything. This is a scene that includes the creation of the universe, volcanoes spewing lava to create the land, waves crashing, the beginning of biological life and even dinosaurs. The CGI is near perfect and is visually appealing. In fact, the lighting, composition and depth of the images that you see are perfect. It is visual brilliance and magnificent to see - it’s incredibly difficult to explain the beauty of it but it is pretty much irrelevant. It’s an interesting idea and it’s very well done but it is just pointless to the storyline and tells nothing of the story, nor is it even clear that Jack is actually thinking this; it just happens. It just came across as pretentious - the whispering narrative of random philosophical questions didn’t help this case either. We are insignificant yet complex in an infinite universe.
After the creation of the world comes the creation of the O’Brien family. Starting with the eldest son, Jack. It shows the playful and graceful relationship he develops with his mother and it also shows the distance between him and his father (Brad Pitt). Then, as they grow up, it shows the conflict and how the parents are a contradiction. Their mother tries to teach them grace and to be delicate, caring and forgiving while their father teaches them to be tenacious, strict and to not let their aspirations and dreams escape like his dream of being a musician did. It’s this contradiction that leads to young Jack’s (Hunter McCracken) complicated relationship with his father.
Nothing really happens in the film bar fluid shots and smooth transitions from scene to scene and at points, nothing occurs. Just like nothing truly happens in your childhood yet it sticks with you. The true power comes from how powerfully you can relate to it. The relationships, the mundaneness of your childhood, the mistakes, the redemption, the angst, the confusion, the jealousy and every emotion that you ever feel in your life. As it flows, you get whispered narrative from Jack (young and middle-aged), Mrs O’Brien and Mr O’Brien but the moments I enjoyed the most were the moments where there was real dialogue, a real scene and a real memory. They seemed heartfelt, realistic and hard for Jack to bear. There’s a moment where Mr O’Brien asks if the family isn’t good enough for Jack because he wanted company. Obviously, that’s wrong considering Jack’s close relationships with his two brothers, R.L. (Laramie Eppler - Brad Pitt’s lovechild, he must be!) and Steve (Tye Sheridan).
The five editors of the film worked on it for three years, editing around 600,000 metres of film…wow. Source: Total Film.
His father believes in the idea of money and believes it’s important. He is strict with the boys and offers stern guidelines so they can be successful when they’re older. Brad Pitt plays it excellently as he is easily believable as strict but still maintains his likeability. He tells his children that he only does this because he loves them. He offers a hot and cold relationship where he shows seconds of affection with hugs and kisses but pushes them away at a safe distance so they know not to get comfortable with it. While the mother maintains the role of endless affection. Of course this is all subjective and all from the memories of Jack. Memories which he could have twisted and tampered with so we only have the biased view of a middle-aged man who has a complicated relationship with his father.
The origin of this film goes back to the late 1970s, when after Days of Heaven director Terrence Malick was working on a project named “Q”, that would explore the origins of life on earth. He abandoned the project, but this film contains elements from it.
After the long childhood memories, we’re dragged back to present day with a depressed Sean Penn who can’t control his emotions. He even phones his father to apologise for something he said. Then, we’re taken to the desert while Jack walks around looking for answers to his life questions and his faith troubles. He follows his younger self around this desert, through random doorways until he’s led to a beach. This is where there’s a sort of reunion of the family members from his childhood memories and all the characters we met along the way. It seems like an afterlife-esque reunion where everyone just walks and talks with each other.
The only true problems are the narrative and the pretentiousness of the film. The storytelling isn’t very clear nor is it consistent and nor is anything relative but then again, maybe that’s a metaphor for life and how everything isn’t relative but it’s still there. It’s very subjective and highly relies on you to sit and think and ponder our existence and the meaning of each and every shot. Is that too much to expect of an audience? Lately, it probably is and that’s why I feel so ashamed and sorry for the people who left the screening because they didn’t understand the importance nor did they appreciate the artistic abilities of this creation. The whispy narrative and the generic “why?” questions don’t raise much but the pictures evoke more. It’s for those who don’t just want to be entertained but want to be educated, have a real connection to the film or want to see things differently. It’s got more to think about than Transformers 3 anyway. I’d recommend seeing it in the cinema because it’s all in the details and the cinema can give you the clarity needed. At least watch it on Blu-Ray and not DVD. There’s so much to say and I will watch it again.