SFF 2011: Tree Of Life

I've been putting off writing about TREE OF LIFE for 24 hours now. I simply don't know how to approach it and I'm not even sure how I feel about it. Unlike others who really emotionally connected with it, I felt it kept me personally at quite a distance. Its ethereal approach did strike some chord within me but it was so intangible that I can't even begin to describe it. Reclusive filmmaker Terence Malick has crafted a supremely unconventional film with ambitions nothing short of tackling life, the universe and everything. Right up the top I will say that TREE OF LIFE is not a film everyone will enjoy. Opinions are dramatically divided ranging from claims of pretentiousness and boredom to others who see it as a spiritual experience (it almost literally is a cinematic prayer even climaxing with operatic music angelically chanting Amen) . One's subjective relationship with this film is what rules here as Malick boldly puts out a drastically unconventional narrative which plays by no pre-determined rules.
TREE OF LIFE opens (after a short duration of an abstract nebulous image which tellingly bookends the film) with an oblique sequence showing a mother receiving a letter we assume is a notification that her son has died in the war. A patented Malick whisper voice over immediately lays out the films central thesis:
“The nuns taught us there is two ways through life - the way of nature and the way of grace. You have to choose which one you follow... Grace doesn't try to please itself. Accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked. Accepts insults and injuries... Nature only wants to please itself. Get others to please it too. Likes to lord it over them. To have its own way. It finds reasons to be unhappy when all the world is shining around it. And love is smiling through all things.”
The above must be kept in mind as the film progresses. Malick doesn't pussyfoot around with TREE OF LIFE. He believes in God, a Christian God no less, and he is uninterested in toning his film down to the hipster-atheists in the crowd. After the film moves through an extended 'birth of the universe' sequence that lost quite a few of the audience that I saw the film with, we get to the meat and potatoes of TREE OF LIFE. A long middle-section covering the birth and childhood of a young boy in a Texas suburban neighbourhood in the 50s.
Malick attempts something rather audacious with this middle section. He not only endeavours to recreate essentially a straightforward coming-of-age plot, but he simultaneously is presents this story as an allegorical recreation of the Garden Of Eden myth. Brad Pitt brilliantly plays the stern, authoritarian Father/God figure while Jessica Chastain is the Mother/Nature. Jack, our boy protagonist (played by Sean Penn in the older scenes) can be seen as representing human-kind, growing up, battling with independent natural impulses before finally rebelling against his creator (Father/God). One of Jack's most telling lines in voice over says, “ Why does he hurt us, our Father?”
TREE OF LIFE begins with creation and ends, well, with the end or creation so to speak. In between, man struggles with human nature and learns the only way to true enlightenment is the way of control. Man needs God. We need to overcome our petty, reactionary emotions. Malick even goes so far as to allude to God questioning his own mistakes.
Regardless of one's personal response to TREE OF LIFE, Malick's ambition cannot be denied. This is a gutsy movie to make in today's day and age. There are rumours that an original cut of the film included even more overt Christian imagery. I am glad this final version was toned down. While Malick is making some bold statements about belief and righteousness, it never feels like he is being preachy and for that he must be commended.
Formally the film is magnificent with Malick completely utilising his own personal film grammar that is resolutely unlike any other filmmaker working today. His montage, alternate between rhythmic and associational techniques is constantly fascinating while his photography is nothing short of gorgeous. It is not an understatement to say that, aesthetically speaking, this is one of the most beautiful films ever made. There are pictures containing in TREE OF LIFE that are just jaw-dropping.
Several times throughout TREE OF LIFE a strange thought popped into my head. The film made me think of Gaspar Noe and particularly Enter The Void. At their essence both films are incredibly similar in theme and function except they operate on opposingly binary ends of the spectrum. Where ETV offered up a world (and after-life) of no hope and a portrait of death that was cynically misanthropic, TOL is almost uncomfortably bright, immensely religious and totally genuine.
Most significantly, both films incorporate an unconventional narrative style which utilises extended non-narrative abstract imagery in the pursuit of creating an affectual response in their audience. While Malick aims to uplift and enrich, well, let's just say that Noe is more interested in brutalism. Ultimately though, both filmmakers are pushing the language of cinema towards a more visceral and experiential space. These are films that don't just tell or show but also determine to make you feel.
There is plenty more I can say about TREE OF LIFE from its elegantly immersive perspective on childhood to its bravely ridiculous climax. Malick as created a truly impressive and resolutely iconoclastic film. It will not be to all tastes, in fact I'm still not even sure it is to my taste but any self-respecting film-lover should pay attention. Love it or hate it this is a significant piece of cinema.