The Tree of Life (2011) Review

Firstly, I’d like to point out that I feel 100% inadequate in reviewing this film.  It’s tough, to watch, to write about, to think about, to enjoy, but that doesn’t stop me from believing it to be one of the best films of the year, probably the decade and it will no doubt be the bane, or pleasure, of any film student for years to come … I hope you can make sense of my review …

We are introduced to the O’Brien family, man, wife and three young sons in 1950s Texas.  Skip forward to the parents receiving communication one of their teenage son’s death before a funeral takes place.  A further skip forward to another of the sons in modern America surrounded skyscrapers reflecting on his life past and present and his place in the universe.  Visiting his thoughts we see impressionistic visions of the birth of the universe, the evolution of life and his own fragmented memories childhood.  The boys learn two ways through life from their parents suggested by voice-overs pondering the meaning of life.  The mother silently and endlessly nurtures them and the father adversely teaches them harsh life lessons and attempts to toughen them up through pugilism, punishment and discipline.  He is a failed pianist working at an oil company chasing patents for his ideas; this takes him around the world.  In his absence the boys embrace a sense of freedom and eldest son develops an instantly regretful underlying wayward streak engaging in vandalism, theft and bullying of his younger brother in envious light of his artistic talents.  The father returns and upon finding out his plant is to be closed the family must move from their home.  In the present day who we now know to be the eldest son walks through a door frame in the desert and appears to be in a kind of dream like place where all the characters from his past are preserved at a younger age.

The breadth and scope of Terrence Malick’s latest epic tone poem is grandiose and ostentatious yet at times subtle and almost subliminal in its more quiet and sombre moments.  The film is a majestic and rapturous paen to the indecipherable wonders of the cosmos and an ode to memories of 1950s Americana; memories you would presume to those of the director, anyone alive before swathes of American youth disappeared for the mass armageddon in south east Asia and the faux nostalgia so finely mass marketed in the age of post millennia consumerism.  Pierced from start to finish by startlingly non-CGI images of the formation of the universe and the beauty of life on Earth as we know it The Tree of Life is a sparse tale of the small town Texan O’Brien brothers torn between following the life paths of an overbearing austere father – a beyond competent portrayal from Brad Pitt that warrants every portion of hyperbole bestowed upon it – and their graceful mother – an interchangeably elegant then elegiac performance from Jessica Chastain.

Book-ended by snatches of a restrained presentation in body language by Sean Penn in an attempt to bond the bulk of the action to the modern age of urban metropolises and tightly packed skyscrapers.  Opening with an on screen quote from the Book of Job and settling at its close in the kingdom of heaven through the doors of perception the film is heavy on the Old Testament and at times laboured with its biblical proportions, however, it is the camera’s paganistic worship of the sun that is most striking.  Shot as it is throughout the film through the trees, the wings of a butterfly and the spray of a hose Emmanuel Lubezki captures that that is all life giving and is in reverie of its truly altruistic nature.  The narrative unfolds as traces of memories in eldest brother Jack O’Brien’s head as he comes to terms with his place in the universe, the complex love of his individual parents and the death of his younger brother as a teenager twenty to thirty years on.  Therefore we see the sun through the eyes of a young prepubescent boy, as the Egyptians, Babylonians and the ancient pious would have seen the sun, as the central cast pose breathy questions in the voice over as if it were the Sun of God/the Light of God. 
In the voice over Chastain’s mother character sets up the duality that belies the film, the choice between the way of love through strong Christian notions of evangelism (the mother) and the way nature through harsh realities and punishment (the father).  Perhaps though the realisation of the forty something Jack is that in the face of the grandeur of the planets and the vastness of space, morality and the choice between love and fear, as Bill Hicks would describe is some what irrelevant and places Jean Paul Satre’s existentialist ponderings in the 1950s before science would start taking leaping strides from the 1960s through to the 21st century; a time when the skies truly were the final frontier ie. “the place where God lives” and the USA was building the new Holy Roman Empire.

Almost impeccably edited the film is completed by a score from Alexandre Desplat who takes in 500 years of western classical music and bridges four eras with a dense collection of composers.  The best parts bear more than similarity to Kubrick’s 2001 yet, possibly to avoid parody the soundtrack employs pieces less likely to induce cliché than that of 2001 or Disney’s classically laden Fantasia.  The father plays the baroque organ pieces of JS Bach from a time when music and art was only commissioned at the behest of the church tying him to the idea of expression through wages and the admiration of art living within your means rather than the graceful romanticism that resonates with the mothers elegance and spirituality, or the ever revived Agnus Dei movement of the Requiem Mass for the Dead.  That said you would be forgiven in wanting to watch the the inner planetary sequences with the voice-overs muted whilst listening to Gustav Holst’s Planets Suite or watch the nature and evolution set pieces expecting to hear David Attenborough summarise its visual splendour in a few crisp monologues.  With Hector Berlioz playing out over the evolution of the universe and Johannes Brahms and Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky in the family home the film and its accompanying soundtrack are anything but modest in their ambition, but perhaps knowingly so of its place in time and space.

Just go and watch it.

Review by Matt Henshaw
Thanks for Reading !


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