Tree Of Life Review

Daze of heaven.

This could be a loose theme of maverick director Terrence Malick’s latest opus, Tree Of Life, but the essence of what he’s attempting to communicate is lost on me.

A black screen with a spiralling flash of colour introduces the film, as a female voice over somewhat presumptuously declares that there are only two ways of living on this planet; the way of grace, and the way of nature.

This is the prelude to a rather picture perfect 1950’s suburban, american existence replete with authoritarian patriarch, a too good to be true mother and three children. The eldest of this trio of brothers is Jack, a rather angry and misguided child who seems to be caught between the examples set by his parents as to how he should best live his life.

Jack’s upbringing is seemingly told via flashback. We watch his grown up, architect self walk around a highly artificial office skyscraper, yet he doesn’t play narrator. Instead, we’re invited to assume the story that unfolds is the one swimming around Jack’s mind.

After a brief montage reveals a traumatic truth he and his family had to cope with betwixt Jack’s adolescence and early adult years, we are taken on a visual ride on the supposed origins of the universe.

This twenty minute sequence is both preposterous and inspiring, yet before long we’re taken back to the 50’s and a more conventional cinematic narrative. The question is which path did Jack choose in his own evolution; that of grace or of nature?

Tree Of Life is a strange creature. The film’s name, doubtless inspired by the various cultural folklores around this concept, is also the premise the sprawling narrative arc; the notion that everything in life is connected.

Taking on this subject matter, whilst simultaneously chronicling not just mankind’s conception but the earth’s as Malick does here, is a brave choice, as the scope for this idea is essentially infinite.

The stand out feature on Tree Of Life is undoubtedly the symphonic origin of our planet. Stunning cinematography is mixed with operatic bombast in a montage that takes in single cell organism’s first evolutionary steps, the demise of the dinosaur’s age and earth’s present incarnation.

The alien nature of this sequence, especially in context of preconceived cinematic expectations, is at first confusing. But once you get your head round this, and dial out the excessively over the top musical accompaniment, it’s a truly overwhelming experience.

Which turns out to be both Tree Of Life’s greatest strength and achilles heel. For, having flirted with greatness by capturing the natural beauty of the world we live in so brilliantly, the hum drum reality of a human’s narrative arc does not engage the mind quite so much.

And that’s when you realise there’s still another two hours to go.

With infamous hollywood recluse Malick at the helm, and a cast that includes Sean Penn as the grown up Jack and Brad Pitt as his old school father, Tree Of Life won the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes film festival.

I can’t help but doubt such critical acclaim would have come the way of this project if such big names weren’t attached. While the notion of Tree Of Life is noble, the execution simply doesn’t do it justice.

The main storyline is neither interesting nor that relevant even to what takes place before this. In truth, I’ve seen better films this week myself, so can only wonder what else was being shown at Cannes.

So while it’s almost worth watching Tree Of Life for the breathtaking natural imagery on display, those pesky humans managed to bring me back down to earth.

Jonathan Campbell

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July 2011
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