By Chris Gonzalez
The Tree of Life does what church is supposed to do. It completely delivers on its spiritual promise. I mean no offense by that, and if you’re a person that genuinely connects with the ritual of religious gathering 100% of the time, then more power to you. I’ve been moved by a sermon here and there. But what Terrence Malick achieves in his fifth film in nearly 40 years is the equivalent of a sucker punch with a feather that simultaneously serves as homily and reflection. In development since the 1970’s, finally shot 3 years ago, and edited down from 4 hours to its current 2 1/4 hour length, the freeform narrative spanning the dawn of creation to the afterlife (?) is unlike anything you’ve seen before.
As I’m writing this review, I find it hard to compress what the movie is. It really isn’t anything by conventional standards, but that’s because it’s dealing witheverything. Like Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, this is an unremitting idea piece. It’s pure visual poetry relying heavily on montage, narration, and thematic connection rather than a three-act structure. But there’s an idea behind every single frame no matter how confounding it might be. Even a much-discussed scene involving dinosaurs ties into the movies idea in a subtle and unexpected way. It’s as if the film is projecting Malick’s rawest dreams and nightmares.
At its core The Tree of Life is about a 1950’s all-American family. The patriarch, played by Brad Pitt, is a questionable father at best. The way he raises his children and their reactions reinforce the cosmic themes of the movie. What could be more cyclical than birth and procreation? Pitt’s character makes us wonder how his father raised him.
Best serving this cinematic meditation is the weaver of the visual tapestry: Emmanuel Lubezkie, cinematographer of Y Tu MamáTambien, Children of Men, and Malick’s The New World. This has to be one of the most stunningly shot films ever captured. Serious. Art. It plays like a 2-hour plus edition of the beautifully representative trailer.
Malick elicits some of the greatest child performances in recent memory. It’s rare to see such realistic representations of prepubescent youth in movies. Not only are the children believable, but they embody the human experience: full of energy, doubt, fear, guilt, love, and scorn.
Profound and intense, mystical and confusing, Tree of Life provides no easy answers. There is no answer for all of this. Like the best movies, it provides a medium to grapple with a constant question: do I do what I want or what I should? Nature or grace? You have to be willing to take the trip. It’s a deeply personal film for the viewer. I went with four friends and their reactions were polarizing. One caught a case of the zZz’s from boredom, another became nauseous with emotion, and I was transfixed, agreeing with every step. Even if this doesn’t sound like your sort of deal, you owe it to yourself to make the journey. Malick is asking you to open your eyes to the magic that exists in every mundane moment of our lives and the potential lives beyond. Don’t miss the opportunity to join the conversation.
The Tree of Life is out in LA and NY and being released throughout June, with a nationwide release on July 8. It’s also getting very rare play in select IMAX theaters… which I can’t even imagine. Click here to see when it’s coming to your city.