Review- The Tree of Life

Brad Pitt and Laramie Eppler in The Tree of Life (Fox Searchlight Pictures)

In a recent review, I forget which, I was tempted to discuss the importance a title can play in a film but I didn’t because I thought in that case it’d be a bit too trite. Specifically mentioning how a title can pull everything together and put it all in focus when things seem a bit disparate. This is quite true of The Tree of Life. Before having seen this film I actually hadn’t heard (or recorded to memory) that this was a notion in many philosophies and religions and about the interconnection of all living things. However, even if you walk in without that knowledge, as I did, the film makes that very clear in its shots and edits.

Which leads to the editing of this film, I believe that aesthetically and technologically we’re approaching an edited film that can more accurately reflect the inner-workings of the mind than ever before. In some cases better than novels if you think about it because novels capture inner-monologue and describe in an abundance of words what a quick series of images can convey. This is brought up because this film is essentially a mindplay and it’s the closest to seeing thoughts projected on a screen as I’ve seen. You really go on a journey through these disjointed images and while it does take a while to get into it there will come a point when it clicks.

You can truly experience this film and more so in the front row. Yes, it’s where I normally sit and many have an aversion to it but this is where the images are bigger and the film really does feel like it’s thoughts happening in front of your eyes at times.

The reason it takes a little time to get into is that in the beginning of the film no scene starts in a conventional way and dialogue is chasing imagery left, right and center. This is the scatter-brained portion of the film once the protagonist starts to ruminate on the film’s central question: “What’s my place in this world?” it gets less scattered.

There are two extended sequences that break out of the box and go through time and space from The Big Bang to evolution to vistas of the world as it is today, along with a frame of the very Beginning I believe. These sequences are what draw this film comparisons to 2001, which aren’t unwarranted but aside from these episodes it’s a much more grounded, soul-searching and personal tale than Kubrick weaved.

After the first such episode the flashbacks get less choppy and more contiguous and aside from the editing style the narrative gets rather straight forward and very interesting. As is true with memory this film calls up things that are highlights but not all of them and leaves room to speculate and reflect on what we didn’t focus on the first time, which makes this film a prime candidate to be re-viewed.

It’s this personal approach throughout that connects you to the film. Even with the unusual structure and editing and amazingly ambitious scope it’s still about one man, and thus all men and we learn about him and his upbringing and see what torments him and what he’s seeking to reconcile.

There has been an awful lot written about the fact that this film uses religion as a story element like that’s akin to having plot holes or no conflict, in other words, it was reported as a negative coming out of Cannes. Don’t worry I’m not about to soapbox my religious views on anyone; people doing that is one of my pet peeves. What I am going to say that it’s a bit ridiculous that it’s practically verboten for a character in a piece of fiction to have religious views according to some. This is a story about a man who is having an existential crisis and is trying to figure out what his role is and his mind wanders from the dawn of creation to everywhere in between. It’s perfectly natural for him or his mother to be asking God “Why this or that?” Furthermore, if you still need a little more justification I’ve got it: not only is our protagonist a child of the 50s but this is a person who has found no answers yet, no peace at some point, no matter how devout he is or isn’t he might’ve turned to faith.

The bottom line is artists do put their views and ideas into their films but they’re not always literal. So just because a film mentions God or invokes religion in anyway does not make it preachy. This is ultimately a film about coming to terms with your past and those you’ve lost. I’d almost go so far as to say this movie is as much about preaching Christianity as The Exorcist is. So enough.

As is to be expected the cinematography in this film is absolutely breathtaking. So many of the shots look like paintings almost and all are beautifully composed. This is a must-see for students of the craft.

The acting in this film is also very strong. As an audience member it takes a while for you to feel it but as more pieces of the narrative fall into place you really start to see how wonderfully everyone did. Jessica Chastain and Brad Pitt’s characters are as different as night and day but they play them equally well. Hopefully, Fox/Fox Searchlight push for Brad Pitt come awards season. He’s one of Hollywood’s biggest names and he’s proven he’ll take a risk and go out on a limb and this might get him his statue. Equally compelling but more surprising are the performances of the three newcomers as the kids particularly Hunter McCracken who plays our protagonist Jack as a boy. His burn is the slowest and most explosive in the bunch and his performance rivals that of Pitt.

It’s hard to sum up or rate a film like this. One thing I will say for sure is that while I despise the notion of “important” films in theory but I cannot deny them when I see them regardless of proclivities. Having gotten that out of the way I do like this film and I do consider it important. Would the flow of it work better for me if I saw it again? Perhaps. Would the story hit home harder with all the puzzles solved? Maybe. It’s hard to gauge a film when you’re in awe of so many achievements on a technical and structural level but in a narrative are left to ponder where it falls on the scale. So I will caveat this, pending re-view I rate this film:

9/10

However, please note that even without being re-seen time is the ultimate judge and I have had films rated 9 slide up before.

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