DVD Rental Review - The Tree of Life

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By Craig Thornton

Rental Review – The Tree of Life

The Tree of Life which was nominated for three Oscars – Best Film, Best Director and Best Cinematography is an absolutely stunning film.  Visually, it is like watching a two hour plus painting by a master who understands the infinite nuances of light and composition.  Maverick director Terence Malick who didn’t make a film for twenty years between 1978 (Days of Heaven – Oscar best cinematography) and The Thin Red Line (1998 six Oscar nominations) – has always been interested in nonlinear storytelling and visual symbolism.  The Tree of Life certainly heeds this creed, but to call it experimental is a stretch. 

Tree of Life is tough going in the beginning, before the main characters are introduced and the film begins to move ahead chronologically.  The opening feels like a prologue or annotation to the story rather than part of the movie itself.  The average movie viewer will be challenged to get through the heavy imagery and symbolism, not to mention the scene and time changes in the beginning.  It will be frustrating if you feel you must figure out what everything means during this prologue even if the images are gorgeous and evocative.  It is best just to relax and let the imagery work subliminally.  You might be bored, annoyed or feel stupid, but if you stick with the film, you will be rewarded with an incredibly involving middle. 

The story, which really isn’t the correct word, revolves around a family in Waco, Texas in the 1950’s.  The father, played by Brad Pitt – who really can act--is an incredibly complicated three dimensional character.  Affectionate and demonstrative one moment, and a strict authoritarian the next, he isn’t above losing his temper when he faces the frustration of parenthood or the futility of trying to get ahead at work. Both cynical and religious, Pitt’s character becomes more and more a force to reckon with as the film progresses.  Pitt’s wife is played by the very talented Jessica Chastain.  Although she has little dialogue in the film she completely embodies a devoted, yet strong housewife.  When faced with strife in her domestic life, she does her very best, despite the lack of choices she has.  Chastain manages to be both childlike and maternal at the same time.  

Pitt and Chastain have three boys and much of the middle film focuses on the brothers’ daily lives growing up together in the increasingly tumultuous household.  Here is where the film soars.  Lovingly photographed and intimately acted, the immersion in the boys’ lives is so specific and true that the viewer’s emotional involvement continues to increase.  I felt like I was watching a novel, because I became more and more invested in the characters’ as the film progressed.

Malick (who also wrote the film) is interested in the cycle of life and this of course includes death. He also believes that all life is connected in some way, from the beginning of time until now. The end of the film is a bit indulgent as it presents an epilogue similar to the prologue that opened the film.  So despite Malick’s desire to shun structure, he has created a kind of structure with the visually sumptuous, but confusing bookends. This poses the question; does the length and abstract tone of the epilogue dissipate the emotional involvement the preceded it?  Would the film have worked better without the visual epilogue steeped in spiritualism and symbols? Does everything have to be explained? 

Regardless, what the answers are to these questions, The Tree of Life is a highly original film of artistic merit.  You don’t have to like it, but you aren’t likely to forget it.  Kudos to Malick for showing some real moxie here.

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Tuesday, October 21, 2014
, Watertown, NY

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