60- Tree of Life [9.5]
The impressionistic story of a Midwestern family in the 1950’s. The film follows the life journey of the eldest son, Jack, through the innocence of childhood to his disillusioned adult years as he tries to reconcile a complicated relationship with his father.
I will not recommend people to see Tree of Life. That is not to say that I believe it’s unworthy of being seen–quite the opposite, actually. As I left the theater, speechless and unable to make complete sense of what I had just seen, I knew one thing with certainty: Tree of Life is a film that will stick with me for a long, long time.
In doing this site, one of the rules I adhere to in reviewing movies I’d just seen for the first time is to write and assign a rating without the influence of reading others thoughts. I’m going to break that rule now (and hopefully just this once time), as even though I was sure of wanting to give the film a 9.5 after watching it, I had absolutely no idea how I was going to get across what I wanted to say about Tree of Life. I still feel that way (cue “stumped” pun). Thankfully, there are a lot of very talented reviewers on the internet who have summed up my thoughts much better than I could have stated them.
Please beware of some very minor spoilers below:
Tree of Life is not a movie that anyone else can understand for you.
And yet, a number of the more conflicted responses I’ve read suggest that some viewers are unwilling to understand the movie for themselves. I don’t mean that to sound quite as condescending as it reads, but rather to draw attention to the idea that the film’s myth and mass may have convinced otherwise astute audiences to second-guess their reactions. Of course subsequent viewings will yield greater or revised understanding and a more exacting appreciation for the smaller sinews of Malick’s opus, but my Twitter feed — that infallible fount of information — has been absolutely overrun with anachronistically humble sentiments like “I’m not really sure what it’s about” or “It was beautiful, but I’m going to have see it again before I weigh in.” This from people who routinely unloose opinions with all the caution of Harold Camping predicting the weather.
Perhaps some viewers fear that their reaction might seem reductive in the face of such a mammoth work, or maybe the shifts in the movie’s somewhat non-linear narrative are so seismic that people are struggling to reconcile the film’s deceptively different movements into a coherent symphonic whole. Of course you’re free to see that as a fault of the film and not its audience, but I’m of the mind that Tree of Life isn’t a riddle to be solved so much as it’s an article of empirical faith that writes beyond the margins.
Tree of Life is surely one of the most gorgeous movies ever made; every shot in the film is sheer beauty, and almost every moment contains something simply wonderful to look at. Not only is the film a joy to look at, a solid two hours out of its two and a half hour runtime is astonishing, a work of sublime filmmaking narrative.
But it’s that other half hour or so that continues to trouble me, and seems to be the hardest bit to unravel. It takes the form of narrative bookends, with Sean Penn as the grown up version of the boy who is the center of the rest of the film, and I kind of don’t really understand what it’s saying. If there are any bits of the film that feel ‘pretentious,’ it’s these bits, which include surreal scenes of Penn wandering in a desert, chasing after his younger self and Penn on a beach, hugging all the people from his youth, including young versions of his mother and father.
Audiences who engage with Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life may find that it will be impossible to watch without bringing their own personal history, their emotional baggage, their own family experiences with them to the film. The film’s considerable power comes from Malick’s ability to go to a universal place and yet still make the film seem very personal and relevant to each individual who sees it. It is possible to view the film empirically. Just from the one viewing that I had, I feel it is a masterwork, but it resonates with me with such force that I find myself unable to think about the film without it being filtered by my own life experiences. I do not think I will be the only one who feels that way about this film.
Tree of Life is absolutely not for everyone. It’s quiet, contemplative, and it rewards patience and understanding. Many moviegoers will flat out hate it – they will hate Malick’s refusal to tell his story with a conventional narrative; they will hate Malick’s flights-of-fancy that will come off to some as incredibly indulgent; they will hate the fact that Malick devotes most of the film to a portrait of a family in small-town 1950s Texas and think that it is not a subject deserving of so much time and attention. The criticisms put against this film – it’s indulgent, pretentious, too long – could be valid for a moviegoer unused to working with a film the way Malick requires. The film is as full and as long as Malick needs it to be; critics of the length remind me of Amadeus’s Mozart asking which notes he should take out of his opera. He has a journey in mind, and he will not skip any step, because as so many have said before, the point isn’t about where you arrive but how you got there. But Malick tells this story the only way he can, and how audiences respond to it is very much what the movie is about, as opposed to any kind of linear narrative path.
So there you go. It’s very well possible that I may go on and change my mind completely about how much the film meant to me and what I make of it. There were times where it completely frustrated me. At other times, I was holding back tears. Regardless of the spectrum of emotions the film ran me through, I do not believe I will ever see a movie like Tree of Life again.