The Establishing Shot: The Tree of Life Review

Friday, July 08, 2011 Craig Grobler 0 Comments

the tree of lifeMuch has been made of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life since its debut at Cannes 2011, more specifically what it is about. For some reason and in spite of missing a crucial 15 minutes at the start it was very clear to me the whole way through the film. But there seems to be so much confusion out there – afterwards I wondered if I really knew what was going on in the film.

To be honest there are few filmmakers that are brave enough to tread the path Malick walks and even though I appreciate his affinity to nature, his high quality aesthetics and humanistic techniques I have never felt his films to be as great as many of his aficionados do. In fact in pretty much all his films I get to that point near the middle where I’m shifting in my seat slightly under the crushing weight of the films efforts to unnecessarily labour a point. But I am overtly aware that in a medium that there is such a lack of nature and spirituality, something is better than nothing. Possibly this worked in my favour as I went in to The Tree of Life with little to no expectation.

The Tree of Life Trailer

The Tree of Life is a celebration of Life, it is a film about compassion and connection. It is also Malick’s response to Hollywood gilded glamorising of greed is good, guns, cars, girls and explosions are cool as well as the belief that only the strong survive and to be strong you have to let everyone know you are strong. It’s about all those things you know to be true & valuable before you grow up.

At the heart of The Tree of Life is the O’Brien family. Set in the 1950s we follow the family as the heads of the household, the dichotomic Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt) hard nosed with a military background and Mrs. O’Brien (Jessica Chastain) gentle and more in touch with the spiritual side of life, court and bring life into the world in the shape of Jack (Hunter McCracken), Steve (Tye Sheridan) and R.L. (Laramie Eppler) Even though this is the family on the right side of the tracks to Badlands’ Kit, they face trying times as Mr. O’Brien faces an uncertain future and growing frustration. The family is struck by tragedy which sparks a mature Jack to feel very much adrift.

The Tree of Life is told in 3 very different formats; an epic and spectacular beginning of Earth. When I say EPIC and SPECTACULAR read these words in capitals. I was in awe as Terrence Malick unfolds the creation of Earth, combining CG and nature photography in the run up to man’s appearance in bold, crip and engaging imagery. I particularly enjoyed the underwater photography and marine life. This is perhaps the best example of this kind of imagery seen in cinema as yet.

I am wholeheartedly recommending that The Tree of Life needs to be seen on the big screen as the effect from some of these astounding visuals will be lost on a smaller screen. Although more in common with an Attenborough nature documentary and the Qatsi Trilogy (Powaqatsi, Koyaanisqatsi and Naqoyqatsi) Malick makes his point poignantly – although we forget, even in nature there is compassion & connection.
On a side note – I have a belief that secretly all filmmakers want to show the universe being created. I know I do, as this is really the ultimate show and if one can crack it – a night of deep satisfactorily sleep will ensue.
During the second part we explore the O’Brien family’s complex relationship through life in small town USA circa 1950, as Jack goes through his formative years. Beautifully shot and painted like a Norman Rockwell Americana postcard, it feels personal and almost voyeuristic in style as the we are pulled between the beauty of a young family finding their way and the tension as they seemingly head towards a collision.

Nice to see Brad Pitt acting again and one of the outstanding moments for me apart from the visual extravaganza of Earths creation is the part of the film where his character suffers a business related set back and he wanders around whilst his defiant inner monologue states his point of view. As defining moment for me now as Tyler Durden’s rhetoric to my younger self. Absolutely electric.

In terms of performance, c’mon this a Malick film anything less than brilliant would be unacceptable and even though the style of story telling and nostalgic imagery will dominate your attention, performances are faultless and without a hint of sentimentally.

The third part is a short meta physical metaphor that brings the imagery of Jack wandering lost throughout the film full circle. In essence repeating the story again existentially but it also serves to bring closure to this tragic and self affirming tale. Compassion and connection it’s all in the hands.

I think some may struggle with this bit of the final as changing gears to a third format may be a bridge too far many and the spiritual connotations too heavy. I’m not religious so I can only take it at face value but suspect for many The Tree of Life will be on the Sunday syllabus soon.

In short I highly recommend that everyone sees The Tree of Life on big screen – you will be astounded by the creation of Earth scenes and slip between dread and wonder with the emotionally engaging tale of the O’Brien family. If you are religious The Tree of Life may be an impactful experience, after the screening I overheard someone explain how moved he was. I’m not religious but felt closer to nature as I went on Terrence Malick‘s spiritual journey.

The Tree of Life is in UK cinemas from today: 8 July, 2011