Sunday, June 12, 2011

Review: 'The Tree of Life'

Me and my wife’s first evening spent out and about in our new digs was celebrating my birthday, which I had spent alone (utterly alone) by myself the week before.  All I wanted for my birthday was the chance to see two new films that I had been highly anticipating from two of my top-10 favorite directors, Woody Allen and Terrence Malick.  Their two films, Midnight in Paris and The Tree of Life, respectively, could truly not be any more different, so it was really an interesting double feature.  Woody’s latest combines his distaste for intellectualism with a charmingly fantastical narrative, which follows Owen Wilson around Paris at night as he meets an eccentric cast of characters, who give him inspiration in his first attempt at writing a novel.  The dialogue is plentiful, the themes are (for better or worse) exposed and overexposed, it’s not lacking in wit or romance, and it is all around a good time at the movies.

Juxtapose that with Malick’s latest and the focus of this review, The Tree of Life, which focuses not on the intellectual, but rather on the spiritual and the instinctual, and compared to Allen's Paris, is extremely contemplative and sparse.     

Where to begin with a film this ambitious—honestly the most ambitious film I’ve ever seen.  I held off on tweeting about it, as I normally do, right after I saw it, because what could I say that could give any sort of indication of my thoughts?  It would be an insult to cram the breadth of a proper reaction to a film like that into 140 characters. 

But I will start where Malick starts, the Book of Job in the Old Testament: “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?  While the morning stars sang together, and the angels shouted for joy?”  Yes, a spiritual film this is, and there are many Christian symbols and references, yet I feel that anyone with a general belief in the human soul, or even someone who seeks purpose on this earth, will glean something from this film. 

The film follows the O’Brien family of Waco, TX, and in terms of a narrative, there’s honestly not much more to say.  The only major plot device comes at the beginning of the film, which reveals that one of the three sons in the family is dead at the age of 19, though we do not know the cause.  The oldest son, Jack, is seen in the present contemplating and grieving over this loss, while his parents back in the ‘60’s are grieving it as well, calling out desperately to God and boldly questioning him.  The abstract jumping around time periods and settings in this sequence really gives you only a taste of where it is about to go.

Remember when I said the film is ambitious? Yeah...a few minutes into the film, Malick conducts a 20-minute overture of the creation of the universe and the earth.  No dialogue, just CGI’d cosmic beauty and operatic voices showing us how inconsequential our existence is.  I mean, I don’t even know if you can call it ambitious, it’s like that word doesn’t even begin to describe what the film does here.  And the majesty and glory of it is breathtaking—unlike anything you’ve ever seen, I promise.

The bigness of the cosmos gives birth to the smallness of the beginnings of the O’Brien family (Brad Pitt and the beautiful Jessica Chastain being the patriarch and matriarchs of the family), who we see getting married, having children, and building a life together.  The family scenes are fairly episodic—it is really as much about the 1950’s Texas setting as it is narrative, yet each little episode does have meaning to it.  I found some of these scenes a little lengthy and ponderous, and it did take away from my enjoyment of the film, yet my co-critic disagreed with me on this point, so I suppose it’s entirely subjective. 

The Biblical allegory is fairly clear: Mr. O’Brien represents “the way of nature”, and Mrs. O’Brien represents “the way of grace,” which references the Old/New Testament versions of salvation.  But it also runs deeper than that: as Jack, the oldest son, grows older, we realize that grace and nature is not an either/or situation, but one of inner conflict that he must overcome.

If you are familiar with any of Malick’s other films, you know how much imagery is used to tell his stories.  In The New World, shots of unexplored coastal Virginia tell the story of coming to a new place and beginning a new life; in The Thin Red Line, tranquil islands in the Pacific Rim are beautifully shot to contradict the horrors of war being depicted on screen, showing the hypocrisy of initiating violence to achieve peace.  Even more so does nature play a role in telling the story of The Tree of Life.  Fundamental, but beautiful images of bodies of water, Texas live oak trees, and landscapes are used to remind us that this universe is not one of nature OR grace, but one of both, simultaneously.  

Additionally, it could be argued that the stupefying beauty and vastness of the cosmic elements during the creation sequence are not used to remind us of our insignificance, but rather, to highlight a similar complexity inside the human soul.   In that regard, the abstract nature of this film will certainly be unsettling for some, and even for myself was difficult to sit through at points, yet the power of its message is undeniable.  It’s a film that I admired more than I enjoyed, no doubt. 

The camerawork in this film is nothing short of a masterpiece.
So, back to the wonderful birthday date I was having.  One of me and my wife’s “fears” of moving to Denver from Houston was the downgrade in the sushi department, you know, being more landlocked and all (only in America in 2011 could that be even jokingly called a fear).  But in between the two films we saw, we decided to give a sushi restaurant a shot.  We walked about half a mile to the restaurant from the theater, soaking in the last bits of the Colorado sun and enjoying the cool breeze unfamiliar to us in the month of June. 

When we got to the restaurant, we enjoyed some sake and toasted to our life together in our new home.  We had an appetizer consisting of nothing but fresh raw scallops served with just a little fresh lemon and soy sauce, and they had that unadulterated, pure flavor that reminds you that God exists.  So we ate, laughed, had a wonderful conversation, enjoying each other’s company, and it was kind of one of those random wonderful moments in a marriage that make me incredibly grateful to be blessed in such a way. 

And so I was thinking about that moment in terms of the movie; how we sometimes think that God makes us feel small by the utter majesty of his nature, and we wonder why things happen to us, and wonder if God even cares.  But there are moments like the one I shared with my wife, which some would pass off as entirely insignificant in the grand scheme of the universe, yet from my standpoint, somehow make me feel deeply and intensely connected with that power and the cosmic plan.  Some may walk into this film and feel small, but what I feel is part of a plan so beautiful and comprehensive that it had the time to include you and I.  In that way, this film is a message of hope, and it makes me realize that I should be nothing but grateful for the gift of partaking in the beauty of the conflict that lies in being a part of this world.