Bottom Line: A masterfully directed and written work of art.
Directed by: Terrence Malick
Starring: Brad Pitt, Cole Cockburn, Fiona Shaw, Hunter McCracken, Jessica Chastain, Kelly Koonce, Laramie Eppler, Nicolas Gonda, Sean Penn, Tye Sheridan, Will Wallace
Writer-director Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life is a solemn reincarnation of the avant-garde, echoing in the likes of Federico Fellini and David Lynch. It’s virtually a poem, or a rather picturesque visualization of one, with scenes acting as stanzas, each shot posing as a line, and the meticulously woven narration representing a poet’s own words. In just a few words, it’s a massively beautiful film. The film’s one fault is not in style itself, but in the “style over substance” agenda. Certainly, The Tree of Life intends to deliver messages about how life, love, family, and death are all intertwined into one body. The premise works as a travelogue, in which a man looks back to 1956, recounting his harrowed family life; unfortunately, the plot is slightly buried as it is, and–unless you happen to have majored in symbolism at Harvard for an entire four years–there isn’t much likelihood of successfully deciphering the conclusion to which the film comes eventually.
What we’re dealing with here is an incredibly intriguing film. Beyond the curious premise, there isn’t much we understand in the plot, but the visuals keep our eyes glued to the screen for every last minute. It adds up to two hours and nineteen minutes, so I feel confident in naming this the best cinematographic work I have ever witnessed, captured light years beyond perfection by Mexican photographer Emmanuel Lubezki. However such grandiloquence lost that well-deserved Academy Award to Hugo, I will never understand. As far as sound, the beauty comes quite close. Some of the more narrative scenes are complemented by birds chirping, others muted against piano music. The contrast is even greater during the more philosophical sequences. During some, the loud energy adds to the marvel; during others, you could literally hear a pin drop twenty yards away.
The Tree of Life is laudable, if nothing else, for its deviation from naturalistic prose. Yes, it’s an unorthodox experience, but it’s well worth watching once, perhaps twice, if you’re willing and not left cold by the suddenly polarizing conclusion. Simply speaking about this wonder to behold wells tears up in my eyes; it begins a truly thought-provoking, carefully paced, quietly understated meditation, then evolves into a ponderous, celebratory, dreamlike testament to the human spirit.