Terence Malick’s Tree of Life is about an American family and in between there are some shots of National Geographic.
The film has been on the radar of many Oscar-bloggers but surprisingly this is not really a typical Oscar-bait film. It is much more in the spirit of Cannes (where it won the Palme d’Or) meaning “if it doesn’t hurt it is not art”.
Thankfully I watched the movie two days before they gave the highest honour of Cannes to it so I did not know whether this movie was highly regarded or not and I guess I would have been a bit more disappointed having heard the insane praise this movie received before entering.
The film features Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain, three pretty good child actors and notably NOT Sean Penn. His screen presence is pretty much the same amount of Sam Jackson in Iron Man 2 meaning you get about 4 minutes of Sean Penn standing around so that itself was a little bit of a let down.
Storywise I can’t really say much about this film. As usually I managed to get into the theater with a four minute delay and witnessed Aunt Petunia talking to Jessica Chastain about one person having died and that at least she had two other children to take care of.
So the set-up is that one child of the three has died.
Unfortunately I spent the entire movie wondering which one would meets his maker, be trying to pick up the hint that I might have missed in the first four minutes, but according to someone who has watched the entire movie it isn’t much clearer beforehand, so probably this is an “ambitious new approach to make the audience think”?
I really have no idea. Furthermore having three kids made me realise why there are almost always just two brothers in stories like this: they are two sides of the central conflict the third one doesn’t really do much and adds to the confusion which one it is the dead one.
The oldest is clearly developed as being an aggressive serial killer in the making whereas the other two blurr and it is not always easy to pin them down both of them are more passive/non-violent which is one more reason why the conflict would have been better with just two.
There even was a scene in the movie where someone died and you only saw two children so I thought now the brother had died and we would see how the two cope with this loss, but after some uncertain scenes at the funeral I spotted the third one still strolling around.
The movie has been compared to Aronofsky’s The Fountain. A movie while ambitious and complex never did make me care for it. I read millions of interpretations for this movie but it didn’t change the fact that The Fountain didn’t engage me.
But it has to be said that Tree of Life is not comparable to The Fountain since the latter while resulting in something many people didn’t like/comprehend at least tried to connect the incredible vastness of the universe with the story of two humans. I
n that aspect Fountain succeeded way above Tree of Life.
The sequences in space or during the time when the earth was formed do little much for the story other than provide eyecandy. I am pretty sure people will go completely mental and theses will deconstruct the ambition and meaning of those images and so on, but to be honest it is not really that complicated:
You have a movie about a family – well let’s replace movie with sequences strung together – a cameo by Penn provides a framework for beginning and end. But what you have right now isn’t really anything we haven’t seen before, so let’s put in space sequences and voiceovers talking about god, that will do the trick.
I am willing to bet that thousands of people who have previously condemned anything Sci-Fi will now praise those sequences as bold and ambitious but just putting two things together without doing anything with this premise doesn’t cut it for me. I might sound a little cynical here, but I think if you want to make a statement about humans, god and our place in the cosmos it is not enough to just throw in some shots of planets with classical music.
If you have seen Blade Runner then just imagine if someone had taken the Roy’s final monologue and pasted it onto another movie – the concept is there, people might find it interesting if they have never pondered about this, but it doesn’t really do anything with it’s symbols. It doesn’t delve into the potential and moreso just points a sign at what could hbe possible but never goes there.
Now having said that and probably sounded like I hated the movie if have to go to the good stuff:
The actors are good, especially the child actors who are in the spotlight most of the time. The space stuff while not being very connected is just gorgeous. The classical movie makes it even more enjoyable.
If you plan seeing Tree of Life see it in cinema. The shots of earth’s birth, the solar system as well as incredible underwater shots are worth the ticket when you see them on screen – who knows you might even start to think about the universe and our place in it and don’t be confused about the dinosaurs.
Unfortunately after the fantastic prehistoric earth the movie goes on for 2hours and 20minutes which is too long for a sequence of “moments out of life”.
Some of those moments are really good, sometimes oddly touching. The relationship between the psychokid and his two sometimes indistinguishable brothers has some moments that are pretty heartfelt.
The relationship between psycho and Brad Pitt was also interesting since it mostly consists of bad moments. I might not really know what the movie wanted to say (if anything) but it seemed like the presence of death just makes you look back on life and you realize that instead of cherishing it when you had the time you were just wasting this gift.
Then again this theory was based on one specific boy dying and later I found out that this one didn’t die but but had surgery to look like Sean Penn.
Only at the very end the movie becomes like the fountain, meaning that it abandons all subtlety and just bombards us with symbols. The result is the same as The Fountain: Symbols are nice if they enhance the story, but they should remain a background player. Something for us to discover after having dealt with the obvious drama on screen.
Instead the last five minutes are just symbolism after symbolism to a point where you say
“The director probably has thought about every single second and it probably hangs together and there is probably an analysis somewhere on how much every frame connects to everything
– but I couldn’t care less”
And it is about as much overkill as the subtle poster: