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The Tree of Life


#234 - The Tree of Life
Terence Malick, 2011



A film about a young boy growing up in American suburbia during the 1950s.

It says a lot about The Tree of Life that that is the simplest logline I could possibly use to summarise the film's plot, but of course there's a lot more to it than just a basic coming-of-age narrative (though the lack of it is probably due to a need to cut the film down to a reasonable feature length). The Tree of Life is about Jack (Hunter McCracken as a child, Sean Penn as an adult). Though the film seems to alternate between Jack's seemingly typical 1950s childhood and his modern-day existence as an architect, the bulk of the film focuses on the childhood sequences, where Jack lives out a tranquil-looking yet troubled life with his family, including his parents (Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain). Though it is a familiar narrative, Terrence Malick takes a story based on his own childhood experiences and uses it as the foundation for another one of his visually striking meditations on what it is to be alive and part of nature. Of course, I understand that Malick's cinematic sensibilities aren't necessarily for everyone and that this film has attracted its fair share of detractors for this very reason, this is definitely the kind of film that works for me.

The bulk of my appreciation can be directly credited to the visuals. The scenes depicting the birth of the universe quite rightly gained recognition thanks to the eye-watering effects work of 2001's Douglas Trumbull - effects work that is appropriately backed up by glorious classical music. The impressive visual style also extends to the cinematography by two-time Oscar winner Emmanuel Lubezki, which adds vibrancy to Jack's largely mundane childhood. Not even the rapid editing that frequently cuts the film to ribbons does anything to ruin the look of the film - if anything, if only serves the fragmented nature of the film's narrative and attitude even better. Though I still don't make any claims as to completely understand this film, The Tree of Life is one of those films where understanding it is not completely necessary when it comes to appreciating it. Of course, that might just be because the bulk of the film's dialogue is barely above a whisper and almost obtuse in its quasi-philosophical nature. Despite that, this marks two times that I've seen this film and neither one feels like a waste. I come away from watching this still feeling like I need to give both The Tree of Life and Malick's films in general more attention - this film may not be perfect and I have legitimate gripes (visually fascinating though it is, the central storyline is a little too mundane for its own good and I did frequently wonder how this film would've played out if it had added in more footage of Jack as an adult) but I could definitely see it becoming a major favourite at some point.