This Week at the Movies: The Tree of Life

Eric Reimund

Winner of the 2011 Palme d’Or at the presti-gious Cannes festival in France, The Tree of Life is the brainchild of reclusive, visionary director Ter-rence Malick and stars such luminaries as Brad Pitt and Sean Penn; a lofty pedigree matched by its lofty ambition. It intimately documents the troubles of a young Texan family, the O’Briens, within the context of an examination of the origins of life in the universe. Perhaps because of this grand ambition, critics and moviegoers have often had polarized views of the film, some hailing it as a masterpiece and others deeming it pretentious. I align myself strongly with the former and, to those who dismiss it, suggest that patience is, in fact, a virtue.

Malick’s style is anything but easy and the casual moviegoer will find his pacing frustrat-ing. His focus is on visuals and montage. Dia-logue is sparse and the plot can get complicated, but the filmmaker isn’t primarily interested in storytelling, compelling as the story may be. His intent is to evoke emotion, perhaps a more deeply held emotion than can be evoked by way of conventional narrative. That is not to say that the film lacks cohesion. The themes Malick deals with are unrelentingly present throughout the film. This is actually one of the few gripes I have with it. At times it seems overwrought and contrived, but instances of this are few and far between and I would describe these as merely aberrations in taste and subtlety more than structural problems with the film.

Malick’s visuals deserve more than just a passing reference, as, cinematographically, it is one of the strongest films in recent memo-ry. The camera is wield-ed freely and his shot composition and framing is highly impres-sionistic. A spiritual film, The Tree of Life is full of seemingly disconnected shots which, taken in totality, confer a greater signifi-cance. Production value is very high, and our glimpses into the formation of the uni-verse are breathtaking to behold. Although I certainly understand some critics finding Malick’s methods bombastic, the matter remains that these scenes deepen the film’s emotional power by broadening its scope.

The film begins with a quote from the book of Job. God says, “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the Earth, when the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” In addition to being simply beautiful lan-guage, it sets the work’s thematic stage. Early in the film, the O’Brien family is be-set by a tragedy that haunts them all their lives, causing them to seriously question their once deeply-held faith. The film is a story of almost generalized loss and the profound need to come to terms with that loss. This loss is pronounced by the unan-swerable randomness of the tragedies that are so prevalent throughout. God, as rep-resented by the hubristic opening quote, is framed as almost tyrannical, unreason-ably testing the faith of the O’Briens as he had done to the biblical Job. The film ultimately questions the viability of faith in a world that seems so at odds with an omni-benevolent creator.

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