Thursday, June 9, 2011

The Tree of Life (2011) – Review

Review: The Tree of Life is a beautiful film, each shot crafted to both impart and evoke meaning in the viewer. However, it plays off the juxtaposition of images more so than the standard progression of scenes, which one would find in a typical narrative film. There are scenes, but most of the film is built around the impact of one shot cut against the next or the power of each imagine and how it affects its viewer. Writer-director Terrence Malick must have shot a ton of footage (something he often does) to find just the right moments to put together. Even though the film lacks the typical narrative structure found in most modern films (as it feels a lot more like the early and more experimental films in cinema history, reminding me a little of D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance), there is enough story that comes out of the images, scenes and performances to engage the audience on a narrative level. But Malick is not so much interested in the story, he purely wants to create a piece that challenges its audience emotionally (and he succeeds wonderfully). Malick is interested in the themes of innocence, love and how life, religion and human interaction impact and warp how we perceive the world and each other. Each character has an innocent quality to them and love within them, but as the film plays we see this aspects morph and change due to internal and external forces that shape them, and allow them to grow. The loss of innocence within these characters is heartbreaking, as we feel the loss within ourselves as time corrupts us all. That is the power that Malick has with this film. He is able to touch the viewer in a much more personal way than most films can, or hope to. There is a struggle within the film and its viewer because the film is very striking with radiant and sublime aesthetics drawing the viewer in only for the content to revel in the tragedy and pain that the film elicits in its characters and awakens in its viewers. It plays on both a grand scale with the creation of the world and evolution of our planet over time only to focus on one family and primarily one part in their lives, seemingly suggesting the magnitude of what surrounds us and how fragile and small we are in its comparison, but also how personal and meaningful our existence is to us (as short and delicate as it is). As seemingly sad as this film is (seeing the heartbreak and corruption of the characters), Malick does not leave the narrative void of all hope – life is ever evolving with new experiences, people and feelings each present the chance for happiness and substance amidst the tragedy of the passage of time. While the film is very impactful on an emotional level, viewers looking for something with a more cut-and-dry narrative structure (like a typical Hollywood film) are probably not going to like this at all and find it boring, as Malick makes no real attempt to make that type of film. There is not much dialog, as most of the story and meaning are directly derived from the viewer’s interpretation of the images Malick places before them. The Tree of Life is not for everyone, but for those that give in to its allure and participate, opening up to its emotional advances, it is a very profound, mesmerizing and unique cinema experience.

Technical & acting achievements: With each film, Terrence Malick seems to get more interested in the meaning of his images and what they can bring out in the viewer than in telling a fluid story, as this is by far the furthest away from a Hollywood narrative of any of his previous films. However, his brilliance as a filmmaker is seemingly even more evident, as he crafts such excellent shots and powerful scenes – garnering fantastic performances. Malick’s collaboration with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki produces some of the best work (not only of this year, but of the last few decades). They work so well together giving the film such an angelic, truthful and superb look and feel. Lubezki is able to capture and use light maybe better than anyone else working today. Production designer Jack Fisk has a difficult job, designing sets that are minimalistic, but also warm in the 1950s scenes, and cold and stylistically modern sets in the present, while also working with Malick to find locations that fit the atmosphere and feel of the narrative and intended emotional impact – and he does so expertly. The soul of the piece is its performances, but also the score by composer Alexandre Desplat both confronts and comforts the characters on screen, while serving as our emotional gateway to what we are seeing on screen. Back to the performances, Brad Pitt is very good as a man that wants to be a good person and father, but like us all is carried away by selfish ambitions. Hunter McCracken is excellent in his debut, and I look forward to more great work from him in the future. Jessica Chastain, however, steals the film. She has so much strength, but is on the brink of losing herself. It is a marvelous performance, and one I will not forget.

Summary & score: Love it or hate it, The Tree of Life will certainly be among the most interesting, emotionally engaging and powerful (or boring, if you hated it) films of the year (and probably decade). 9/10

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