Terrence Malick directed his first feature film, Badlands, in 1973 and subsequently has made only four films since then. Each is a masterpiece of film making, and I am very happy to say The Tree of Life is no exception. Quite possibly, it is his most important and most heartbreakingly beautiful film to date.
Let me summarise the plot before I begin to explain why this is not only the best film of the year and but it may just be the film of the decade - and I say that with 8 and a half years to go. I am unsure how anything else could move me and delight me in terms of pure film making majesty as this.
In the present day, Jack (Sean Penn) is a man wrestling with the memories of his childhood and the tragedy of a his brother who died at 19. As a young boy, Jack (Hunter McCracken) grows up in 1950s Waco, with a tough father, Mr O’ Brian (Brad Pitt) and gentle mother, Mrs O’ Brian (Jessica Chastain), along with his two younger brothers. Essentially that is the ‘plot’ of this film, but like Terrence Malick’s other pictures, the plot is not what drives the film. The film is driven by the love of the director for his beliefs and passions on the relationship between man and nature. Why are we here? What is love? What is evil? Why do we treat each other so badly?
“There are two ways through life. The way of nature and the way of grace. You have to choose which one you’ll follow.” - Mrs O’ Brian
“What I want to do, I can’t do. I do what I hate.” - Young Jack
The film does not follow a typical narrative structure - we see Jack as a man, Jack as a young boy, Jack as a baby, Jack in the afterlife, and the creation of life itself - all weaved across 140 magical minutes. There has been much written about the meaning of this film and the messages and symbolism Malick may (or may not) be telling us. I am not writing to discuss that - that is for another essay all on its own. Moreover, ‘understanding’ the film in that depth of detail won’t necessarily enhance my viewing pleasure any more than it could possibly be right now. What will enhance it is repeated viewings, and this is a film I will watch over and over again for years to come.
Let me begin with the creation of life sequence. The beauty of Malick’s work technique he has to ‘capture’ moments and place them on film for our viewing pleasure; nothing ever seems forced or deliberate, but natural and organic. When I heard that he was using CGI for a large segment of his new film, I was immediately intrigued to see what he would do. I knew it wouldn’t be some ILM-created digital world, but nothing could have prepared me for a 22 minute sequence which holds the attention unlike anything I’d seen before. I had purposefully stayed away from reviews and essays before seeing the film for myself, and was unsurprised to read afterwards that Malick had indeed worked with Douglas Trumbull to create the effects - it is the single greatest visual feast for the senses we have witnessed since 2001: A Space Odyssey. Using fluorescent dyes, flares, CO2, paints, chemicals, and even milk to create the effects, this sequence MUST be seen at the cinema to do it justice. It is beyond special effects. I won’t even begin to describe its visual beauty, but I am happy to admit it brought a tear to my eye - this is what every film lover wants to see, and seeing it was an emotional experience.
Again, much has been made of the inclusion of dinosaurs in this section of the film. I would argue that, although the film would work perfectly well without the scene, it was such an intriguing and original idea to have the confidence to show to the audience and the parallels it has with life as we know it now, the film does not suffers from its inclusion one bit.
The Tree of Life immerses the viewer with shots and scenes of pure cinematic poetry - this is the experience of cinema at its grandest. The 70mm sequences (if only the whole film were shot this way!); his trademark low tracking shots through grass; his trademark low angles, looking up a man and nature; the voice-over and narration; the classical score; It is all there throughout the film.
The lighting and cinematography is a thing of beauty in itself - the innocent soft whites of the 1950s, and the metallic, harsh palate of the modern day. It was interesting to see Malick’s first representation of the present day on film, as all other films tale place in the past. The low angles are distorted by glass ceilings, the tall trees replaced by skyscrapers, Sean Penn rides an elevator as the scenery disappears behind him. Malick does not seem happy with the modern world, yet his style never flags, not for a second. We can tell so much of his thoughts with what the camera does - it is a talent unlike no other. His camera rarely stays still and the sense of movement is so natural, floating around the characters and scenery, that we get caught up in its flow, taken along in the journey of just a few seconds, before the next one begins. Malick doesn’t linger on shots for too long, but scenes like the perfectly framed shot of the new born baby’s foot between the hands of Brad Pitt stays in the memory long after it is over - perfection.
I’ve since read the original cut was 8 hours long. I would happily sit and watch this version. I only hope an extended version one day comes to DVD, and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki believes this will happen. Read here for more on this.
I can not fault this film. To me, it is film making of the highest order and has no equal. Yet I understand why many people will not enjoy it. They will say it is boring as there is no plot; they will say it is two or three different films put together and neither fit the others; they will say it makes no sense. I say the same thing about 75% of the new films released. Each person enjoys different things. Moreover, The Tree Of Life doesn’t have the same level of enjoyment I get from such greats as The Godfather, Taxi Driver, The Searchers, The Apartment, or even Malick’s The Thin Red Line.
What it does have is a unique quality that I had not seen before, and a cinematic experience I may never have again.
VERDICT - 10 OUT OF 10. Flawless film making.