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The Tree of Life

March 24, 2016

The Tree of Life (2011)
Director: Terrence Malick
Actors: Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain, Hunter McCracken

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Synopsis: Middle-aged Jack O’Brien (Sean Penn) reflects back on his Texan childhood where he was brought up by an idyllic mother (Jessica Chastain) and a strict, disciplinarian father (Brad Pitt).

Review: In a body of work so uncompromisingly singular, it says something that The Tree of Life is by far Terrence Malick’s most ambitious statement (both in content and form) for his belief in the overwhelming transcendence of the sensory and material ephemera of the world around us over its transitory hegemonic concerns.

Take, for example, the opening stretches of the film. We are immediately thrust into a seamless succession of free association imagery and sequences: an opening depiction of a womb-cum-flame scored to the soothing whispers of the “mother”; to the mother herself incarnated as a young girl, caressing a young lamb in an idyllic pastoral backdrop; to Sean Penn as the eldest son seemingly reflecting back from his present day ennuito finally, the catalyst for the film’s sense of yearning and enquiry, the mother receiving a telegram informing her that her middle son has died. Whether we consciously compute what this panorama of sequences institutes or not, subliminally it imprints the film’s two key lores: the sense that our conduit through the phenomena of the story is memory (note how Emmanuel Lubezki’s camera almost seems to personify the sanctity and rapture of recollection throughout the film) and also the sacredness of the everyday (is there a more stunning depiction of grief in all of cinema than this opening scene here? It’s all the more impressive because this representation comes at the film’s beginning, devoid of all dramaturgical context, relying only on connotation, evocation, palette and sound alone to convey its spirit.)

Even the narrative structure of The Tree of Life is mesmeric. Malick blends different chronologies, different “lookers”, and almost different stories, upon his dramatic end-game of a middle-aged man suddenly waking up one morning and ‘remembering’. The complex cacophony of framing devices Malick charts this recollection through would seem to bewilder but does have real contextual relevance: from the mother receiving the telegram that her second son has died; the eldest son in some form of present day crisis reflecting back on this; the whole cosmic imagining of the evolution of ‘grace’; the eldest son’s childhood from conception to the leaving of the epochal first family home; to his ‘submission’ to a cathartic, idyllic reunion with the family of his youth. One of the biggest ironies of this complex schema is that my personal contention is the film would have lost nothing had it omitted all of the evolution sequence, though it’s understandable why Malick felt he needed to go “all in” on it – that the infinitesimal human qualities of love, compassion and grace have all somehow magically materialised from the elemental matter of our universe (note also the subtle mirroring of the first dinosaur exhibiting mercy on a more vulnerable creature, with the elder brother profoundly removing his angry foot from his prone younger brother while play-fighting later in the film.)

What’s beautiful about the realisation of The Tree of Life is how its media and elements appropriate the sentiment of the story. Emmanuel Lubezki’s camera is proxy for the elder brother’s recollection – it floats, it bounds, it scampers joyously with the young brothers running through their halcyonic childhood streets and alleyways, and beams upwards at the twin images of the idealised, tender mother and the imperious, stern father. Malick’s visual and sonic juxtapositions are so intuitive too, especially in the gorgeous sequence where the mother is imagined as literally floating in the air by the trees, cutting abruptly to the elder brother in present day incarnation blighted by his corporate, skyscraper landscape, to an image of the father dwarfed by his own harsh factory environs.

And it’s this communication of (struggle between?) light and repression which is arguably Malick’s greatest triumph in The Tree of Life. We don’t need to be told that the elder brother is in existential meltdown because the space around him communicates that, and particularly how his spartan, designer home and the Manhattan steel cube where he works, act as alienators of space, refractors of light, repressors of the sanctified property of nature – a world away from the lesson of his paradise lost: the leafy, arboreal homestead and his nurturing, tender mother. (March 2016)




2 Comments leave one →
  1. Marir Jabal permalink
    March 28, 2016 4:37 pm

    A amazingly insightful review of thsi superb film. Great job!


  1. Malick Films Ranked | Patrick Nabarro

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