Tuesday, July 12, 2011

A Religious Experience - "The Tree of Life" Review

After three years of production and a stunning debut at the Cannes Film Festival, in which it won the coveted Palme d'Or, I can safely testify that The Tree of Life is the closest to a religious experience that I have ever been a part of.

Structured around the whispered prayers of a 1950’s Midwestern family; The Tree of Life weaves together the haunting imagery of the birth of the universe with the story of the family’s eldest son, Jack.  However, to call The Tree of Life a strict story would be a fallacy.

Reclusive director Terrence Malick (The Thin Red Line, Badlands) is hardly prolific, with six films in nearly four decades, but each of his films has been hailed as a masterpiece of its time and The Tree of Life is no different.  With The Tree of Life, Malick has moved his furthest from a straight narrative structure and has crafted what operates as a two-hour poem that seeks to question the subsistence of faith and the origin of life.

The film is slow, quiet, and most of all pretentious.  At the same time it is beautiful, evocative, thoughtful, and unforgettable.  It is not a film for all, a quarter of the theater left after the beginning, but it is a film that will reward all who experience its magic.

The Tree of Life follows Jack (Hunter McCracken and Sean Penn) who as an adult ruminates on the death of his younger brother and his complicated relationship with his tough-as-nails father, Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt).   It is these memories that make up the majority of the film, as we see what life was like for Jack during his adolescence. 

Mr. O’Brien is a firm father, at times nearly abusive, but deeply loves his sons as he fights to give them the life he desires for them.  Meanwhile, Mrs. O’Brien is more like her children, innocent and sympathetic; traits that begin to create a divide between the family and her sometimes-brash husband.

As an adult, Jack sits somewhere in-between.  He is caught in a modern world, one full of skyscrapers and office buildings, far away from the natural world he knew as a child.  On his face is all the pain and pleasure of a lifetime; a lifetime spent learning and experiencing the world of his father who he has come to both hate and love.

While the lives of these children are very little like my own, it is this specificity that brings such a high level of authenticity to the images.  Before long I found myself caught up in all the little moments of their lives; every image seemingly a new memory from my own life that I had just discovered along with all the emotions it carried.  Like all great art, the more specific it became the more it applied to my very own existence.

The Tree of Life is less a film than it is a pure experience, full of all the emotions that make up life: anger, resentment, joy, fear, and most of all love.   As a believer in the power of film to conjure up these emotions, The Tree of Life is the answer to all my prayers.
4 / 4 Reels


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