Film Review: ‘Tree of Life’

Breathtaking.  Profound.  Beautiful.

I can see why this film got mixed reactions at the Cannes Film Festival this year, yet still managed to win the Palm d’Or, the most prestigious award of the festival.  To some, this film might seem a bit melodramatic and abstract for their taste.  But to others, like myself, I found Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life to have a rare and honest beauty to it that can only be described as fine art.

What you have to realize going in is that this feels more like a visual poem than a film.  A cinematic ballet that brings together stunning imagery with powerful storytelling.  Writer and director Terrence Malick is only one of the few remaining auteurs left in filmmaking, meaning that all his films consistently reflect his personal creative vision.

Sure, some could argue that a little more dialogue added to the film could have made it more relatable to a wider audience, but that is not the film Malick wanted to make.  His film is elegant and sophisticated, told both with expertise and creativity.

On the surface, The Tree of Life follows Jack, the eldest of three brothers living in the Midwest during the 1950s, as he witnesses the loss of innocence in his family.  Brad Pitt (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Fight Club) and Jessica Chastain (Jolene) play his parents struggling with the best way to raise their children, and Sean Penn (Milk, The Thin Red Line) plays the adult Jack, “a lost soul in a modern world” (2010 press release).  But what is really interesting is all this is intercut with long, drawn-out sequences of the universe, evolution, and the creation of life.  We’re talking 20 minute segments that feel like a cross between 2001: A Space Odyssey and Baraka, a 1992 time-lapse documentary of our planet.

Every single person creatively involved with this film is a true artist.  The cinematography alone could be analyzed for days on end.  Shot by Emmanuel Luezki, most famous for his work with renowned Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron in Y Tu Mama Tambien and The Children of Men, this film only further proves how he is one of the most talented cinematographers to ever look through a lens.  As much as I embrace digital technology, it is photography like this that will always be the argument for why film should never die.

Not only was each and every shot beautifully composed, but the camera itself was used as a storytelling tool.  It wasn’t just there to capture the dialogue and performances, but also to drive the scenes forward and show the relationships between the characters, and the world around them.

But it also goes so much further than that.  Every single department in this film, from on-set to post-production, was involved with creating the overall feel of this film.  The editing was precise and creative, while the sound design was effective in giving each scene a undeniable fluidity that perfectly matched the theme of water that ran throughout the film.

The visual effects, while subtle, were also quite amazing.  Malick reportedly had been spending years studying the origins of the universe, and made sure that not only where the fantastic space sequences beautiful, but scientifically accurate as well.

Even the art department brought their A-game and was able to contribute creatively in a way that has rarely been seen since Hitchock’s days.  They should win an Oscar just for Jessica Chastain’s amazing wardrobe alone.

But of course, what good is all this technical achievement without solid performances to support it all on?  Even though this is by far Malick’s most existential, psychedelic film to date, he was able to keep the whole thing grounded by, above all, concentrating on getting powerful, honest performances from a truly talented cast.

Brad Pitt once again shows just how talented he is as an actor.  It’s interesting to think how easily he could have taken his career into becoming just another pretty face, but with strong role after strong role, it is inevitable that an Oscar is in his future.  Jessica Chastain, who surprisingly doesn’t have that long of an acting resume, is so gorgeous in this film in a very real way that you quickly forget that she isn’t already a huge star.  And Sean Penn, a seasoned veteran of Malick’s, is really the only actor that could bring as much pain to a performances with as little dialogue as he had to work with.

But what is especially worth noting is the performances from the children in this film, especially from Hunter McCracken as Jack in his first feature film role.  I would have loved to see how Malick directed these kids on set, because he was able to capture a certain realism from them that could never be achieved from regular Hollywood child actors.

Through all the visual extravagance of The Tree of Life, it is ultimately a film about life and death.  It is about the importance of family, our place in the universe, and how sometimes the small, seemingly insignificant things in our lives are just as beautiful as everything else.

But above all, some of the shots in this film are so unbelievably breathtaking and exhilarating, that alone are more than worth the price of a ticket.

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