Friday, 23 September 2011

Film Review: The Tree Of Life

Where do you start with writer/director Terrence Malick's fifth film in forty-years? To say it's unlike anything in modern cinema would be a gross understatement. The Tree of Life is less a movie in the traditional sense and more an art piece that will appeal to a 'specialised' audience. Certainly this is not one for the masses and its critical aplomb will be equally counter-balanced by its impugners.

Structurally, Tree of Life doesn't follow the normal conventions of story telling. There's no logical narrative, instead resembling movements of a symphony. Indeed, classical music plays a massive part in conveying moods and emotions, its role arguably much more important than dialogue. Musical scores work in tandem with stunning artistry of celestial bodies in space and natural phenomena down on Earth, creating lengthy segments where not a single word is said. It's almost as if watching a nature documentary without Attenborough narrating over the top. These dense barrages of imagery interject the film's more personal introspection of a typical 1950s American family by which, one would believe, its audience can ponder the narrator's almost inaudible whisper "who are we to you?". You will hear these hushed utterances occasionally in what are almost pleads to some higher power in a vain attempt to make sense of it all. And this is pretty much how Tree of Life works. It has no real plot to speak of, rather observing life and contemplating questions which have no answers.

If you could compare it to any film, Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey would be one of its closer companions. Both use imagery of space and nature to represent the beginning of life, the universe and everything with an aspiration of evolution to a higher plain of consciousness. While both are seemingly congruent with one another, Tree of Life can be said to work in reverse. Where 2001 started here and ended out in space, this starts out there and ends on Earth. However, Tree of Life feels more meditative and tranquillising than 2001 is intellectually engaging. Of course you'd be right to think all this sounds like pretentious ataxia which, and certainly people will be inclined toward this view. But like most 'art' it will inevitably divide opinion. Malick encourages rumination rather than making any kind of point, and it is this which will either delight or ruffle audiences.

Tree of Life doesn't pretend to actually answer any questions. It juxtaposes the problems of an ordinary American family bereft by the unexplained death of one of their sons against cosmic images and cataclysmic planetary phenomena such as violent volcanoes and raging tidal waves. The point, one would assume, is to say 'what are our problems compared to the grand scheme of the universe?'. Interestingly however there is a discernible ambiguity to Malick's choice of imagery, on the one hand clearly signifying birth and life but also at times alluding to a distant future at Earth's end. Yet this is probably the point, that while life is created, all living things will eventually expire, only for life to go on and begin anew. Tree of Life portrays the circle of life on both a cosmic and personal scale. While the mico, earthly perspective may indeed pale in comparison in the wider sense, it is the human viewpoint which takes precedence for only this matters to the person experiencing such events. It is an esoteric existentialist exposition highlighting the human tendency to so often think of ourselves as the most important things in the universe. And indeed to us, we are. But Tree of Life also invites you to pull back, giving a profound sense and appreciation that we are also able to comprehend that rationally and can put our egotism into some sort of perspective.

The human exploration takes place in idealistic 1950s American suburbia, white picket fence included. We are presented with the O'Brien family dominated by a stern father (Pitt) who represents 'nature', a strict disciplinarian with regards to his three boys. The film centres on the eldest of the three, Jack, played by an enthralling Hunter McCracken who bounces off his two equally captivating brothers (Eppler, Sheridan) in such an immersive manner. Mr O'Brien embodies many of the traits we envisage in a man from the 'greatest generation'; strong and multitalented displaying a can-do attitude only associated with post-war America. And yet he is troubled, unsatisfied by a feeling that he never reached his potential. It's quite saddening to see that it takes him half a life time to realise that he hasn't been unsuccessful at all and that in fact his greatest achievement are his children. Pitt is captivating as a complex character, both loved and loathed by his family, abrasive yet astringently loving at the same time. A sublime Jessica Chastain plays the boy's mother, a delicate, effulgent figure embodying 'grace'. She is the boys' nurturer and their refuge from their father, her love expressed without words but silent to the whims of an overbearing patriarch. It is the polar opposite natures of Jack's parents, characteristics imbued on Sean Penn's grown-up Jack, with which the film is concerned in lamenting over. It is their conflicting philosophies which form the basis of elder Jack's soul-searching, interweaving his reflection on those formative childhood years and how they relate to his universal excogitation. Elder Jack's struggle is summed up with the line "Father, Mother, always you wrestle inside of me". It is perhaps these parts which are the least effective 'pieces' though, where Sean Penn appears in only a handful of scenes and barely says anything. He wanders aimlessly deep in thought, detached from the world around him in his quest to find answers as to where it all went wrong. This is achieved in almost complete silence and while it acts to frame the film, it remains a somewhat tepid way of thematic exploration.

Tree of Life occupies no middle ground. It's an impressionistic, metaphysical, transcendant exploration of man's internal conflict with the mysteries of life. Ideally you'd want a satisfying drama which involves philosophical pondering, but unfortunately this sacrifices the former for the latter. Tree of Life will divide opinion over those who can make the connection between the tribulations of a 1950s American family with images of nature depicting birth, death, nature and grace and those who will see this as nothing more than pretentious, deliberately opaque folly. The lack of dramatic appeal also makes it difficult to engage with and thus its eschatological equivocations demanding to embrace. While the imagery is admittedly mesmerising, there are more than a few instances where it doesn't communicate very well. This is in large part because Tree of Life is quite clearly a personal experience for Malick as if to exorcise some his own demons. Consequently it often appears aloof from its audience, too absorbed in its own thoughts to resonate with anyone else. This is an incredibly idiosyncratic film which is tantamount to marmite. The best adjective to describe it would be 'interesting'.