MOVIE RATING: 4.5 stars (A-)
(Updated August 25, 2012 – Upgraded from 4 stars to 4.5 stars)
You can also read my “First Look” post on The Tree of Life.
One of the most mysterious and interesting auteur filmmakers out there right now is director Terrence Malick. No one else seems to inspire as many rumors, stories and myths about what they are up to as Malick. When will we see a new film from him? What will the film be about? What’s the title of the film? Malick’s movies tend to languish in the news for years simply titled as “Untitled Terrence Malick Film”. But 2011 saw the birth, both literally and figuratively, of a brand new Malick movie: The Tree Of Life (2011). This is only Malick’s fifth film in a career spanning over 40 years. But his five films are iconic pieces of filmmaking art. I’ve seen them all and I highly recommend you see each and every one to really understand any one of them. They cling together with a web of subliminal meaning that has taken me years to contemplate. My favorite, hands down, is The Thin Red Line (1998), the most masterful look at war, and man for that matter, ever made. It’s one of my Top 10 movies of all time. It took me years and repeated viewings to fully appreciate it.
Like all of Malick’s films, upon first viewing The Tree Of Life (in the theater a year ago), I was confronted with reconciling my very high expectations for the film with the actual film that Malick delivered. It’s taken a year of simmering inside me to really figure out how I feel about it. And after viewing it in its entirety for a 2nd time on blu-ray recently, I feel ready to discuss the film and my thoughts and feelings about it. While The Tree Of Life still makes me question its meaning and intentions, I appreciate it a little more than during my first time. It’s a movie that makes it hard for me to love because it goes way outside the box of normal narrative storytelling. I love strong dialogue driven movies. And The Tree Of Life is not that kind of movie. In fact, this movie probably has less dialogue than any other feature length movie I love. But the subtext in the visuals, music, and feel of the film really got into me during this second viewing because my expectations of wanting dialogue and narrative were gone. Instead of constantly waiting for the movie to give me what I want, like I did the first time, I accepted it for what it is and got something else. Looking back on all 5 of Malick’s movies now, I can see that they all do the same thing. None of them delivered what I wanted or expected from them the first time I saw them. But after letting that go, I was able to appreciate them on subsequent viewings. My initial rating for The Tree Of Life was 3.5 stars but I’ve since updated it to 4 stars.
I’m not going to try to provide a narrative summary or character descriptions for this film since it really means nothing to understanding this film. Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain, Sean Penn and the three young boys (Hunter McCracken, Laramie Eppler, and Tye Sheridan) who play Pitt and Chastain’s sons are all fantastic in their performances. They are not showy performances with scene-chewing speeches, but they are powerfully quiet and subtle performances rooted in deep character development. It’s so clear that they all lived in the shoes of their characters during production on this movie. Malick’s style of shooting demands that anyways from what I understand. I think Malick really nailed the casting on this film. Pitt and Chastain couldn’t be more different yet complimentary in their roles as universal representations of “nature” and “grace”. They just work together in this story. I actually think the 3 boys did the most with their roles. Their very naturalistic performances really brought my own childhood memories and feelings to life through their eyes.
As with every Malick film, the production design, cinematography, sound, music, and editing are simply the best. I don’t know what else to say. There’s no room for improvement in any of those areas and the craftsmanship on this movie is really beyond perfection, even though I know that’s not possible. But that’s the experience I get. It really is astounding to see Malick and his incredible team provide such a meticulous and beautiful film. It has a natural and organic feel to it, yet I know that every single frame of the film and second of sound has been masterfully thought about by someone. Somehow Malick’s style of filmmaking follows all the rules and breaks all the rules at the same time. When it comes to pure technical filmmaking craft, I give The Tree Of Life 5 stars out of 5. It’s only the story and the writing (assuming there was much), that knocks this film down a start for me. But it wouldn’t surprise me that if the “secrets” of this movie are revealed to me down the road, that I upgrade my score.
While I could go on and on talking about the details of this movie, I think it’s best to let it speak for itself beyond what I’ve had to say so far. The ideas, lessons, questions, and queries that I think it poses can’t really be talked about. I believe one has to internalize them like all philosophy, psychology, and spirituality. They’re are no real answers in my mind from The Tree Of Life to the questions it asks. It’s the questions that are the meat of it’s meal.
This movie trailer is one of the best I’ve ever seen. It set my expectations sky high for The Tree Of LIfe. It points to a movie of such greatness that it’s hard to live up to. And it caused me to be frustrated when I first saw the movie. But now I appreciate the movie almost as much as this trailer.
Check out details on this film and its excellent Blu-ray presentation at Blu-ray.com.