The Tree of Life

10 Jun

Title: The Tree of Life
Year: 
2011
Director: 
Terrence Malick
Writer: Terrence Malick
Starring: 
Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, Jessica Chastain, Hunter McCracken
MPAA Rating: 
PG-13, some thematic material
Runtime: 
138 min
Major Awards: –

IMDb Rating: 
8.0
Rotten Tomatoes: 
86%

Before I launch on my review of The Tree of Life I feel like I must go to lengths for you readers to understand just how badly I wanted to see this film. First off, I’m nineteen right now, turning the big two-oh this September, so it’s not like I’ve been watching films for all that long, much less watching them with the level of appreciation of the art behind it I now think I at least somewhat posses. But as a young film aficionado I still remember clearly the most formative events in my movie-watching life. Obviously the first ones came very early on in my life and were marked by Disney movies, the songs of Beauty and the Beast, the tears over Mufasa’s death in The Lion King or me writing my own name in my Toy Story toys like Andy did in the film, those are all still memories I hold very dearly in my heart.

But the actual film that made me love movies was a timeless classic I saw when I was eleven: Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Look, I’m not talking about it being a sublimely perfect film (though it is), because at that age I didn’t really love films (I’ll talk about that moment later), I just watched movies to keep myself entertained, but when I saw this one I realized I actually loved watching them. It was a combination of many things, realizing what the word beauty meant when I saw Audrey Hepburn, the moment she sings ‘Moon River’, seeing her in the iconic black Givenchy dress walking to Tiffany’s in the early morning, just everything about that film got to me in a way that had never happened before with any other film. So after watching it I started watching as many movies as I could, not necessarily going back to the great classics because I was still eleven and that didn’t really cross my mind, but watching whatever I found on TV and in the theaters.

But that just made me really really like movies. The moment that made me truly fall in love with films, the one that got me into every single aspect of it, that made me able to really appreciate the stuff that went on behind them and that made me watch every single film from past decades I could and that would then make me start this blog so that I could talk about the films I had seen happened a few years after my first encounter with Ms. Hepburn. It came sometime during the last week of February, 2005, to be exact, when I was thirteen. And it came courtesy of Sofia Coppola and her then-one-year-old film, Lost in Translation.

To this date Lost in Translation remains, without the slightest doubt, my single favorite film. I could make tons of very OCD- infused Best Of lists and if Lost in Translation is eligible for inclusion in it it will most certainly top it. Yes, maybe it’s my favorite film for sentimental reasons, I’m pretty sure it is, but isn’t that what favorite films should be all about? A film that takes you back to a certain time, one that you can quote from beginning to end, that you can connect to on countless levels. That’s what Lost in Translation is to me. It’s the one that made me love films, and it may sound shallow but I’m absolutely certain that my life right now would be totally different had I not watched that film. I wouldn’t be writing this right now, that’s for sure, I wouldn’t have gone and watched every single Bill Murray film after watching that one, I wouldn’t have gone back and watched literally thousands of older films after watching it. A lot wouldn’t have happened for me.

And I would certainly like to think, at the risk of sounding like a snob, that since 2005 I’ve become quite knowledgeable about films. I’ve certainly tried to watch as many as I could, understand the history, the landmark moments, you name it. Last year alone I watched 210 films with a 2010 release date, which I think is a pretty commendable number. But anyways, this all hasn’t been for nothing, it’s just been to illustrate that I truly love films, and to show that it’s not like I have been watching them with this level of passion for all that long, just for six years.

And exactly for that reason, that it’s not like I’ve been loving films this much for all that long because I’m still young, there hasn’t been “that” movie for me yet, the one that I have been waiting for for ages. Sure, there have been lots of films I’ve been anticipating like crazy, last year’s Inception is just one example, but my anticipation for those films was founded by trailers and teasers released months before its release. But The Tree of Life is finally that first movie I’ve been truly longing for. That’s because it’s a Terrence Malick film, one our times definitive auteurs, a guy that’s the film world’s equivalent to what J.D. Salinger was to the literary world, a true recluse, a guy that in 38 years has given us only 5 films (counting this one) but one that has a cult following, and is known for his extremely picky and tediously long process of creation. Actors kill for the opportunity to work under his direction, filmgoers relish the chance to analyze and get immersed in a film of his, which is why The Tree of Life is a true cinematic event.

I said my anticipation for films in the past has been based on cool trailers, or teasers or just press releases that said that a director I liked was tackling an awesome concept with a cool cast. And that sense of anticipation doesn’t last for long. Yes, you can say that you’ve been excited about Marc Webb’s upcoming Spider-Man reboot with Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone since the moment they announced it (as well as you should be) but we’ve just been thinking that it’ll be a cool movie, and we’ll (I hope) love the trailer whenever it’s released, and then I guess our anticipation will truly begin. The Tree of Life is a film that has had genuine anticipation boiling up for two full years now, since it was announced. If only because it meant a new Terrence Malick film was due, only six years (a short waiting time for him) after his fantastic The New World in 2005 (which I ranked as the 18th best film of that year). And because the cast was Brad Pitt and Sean Penn in a film people knew nothing about, because it was said that Mr. Malick was shooting some really ambitious prehistoric scenes, because Douglas Trumbull, the special effects master responsible for 2001: A Space Odyssey and Blade Runner, was reportedly coming out of a near three decade retirement to provide work for the film. The reasons why The Tree of Life was hugely anticipated for two years were endless, the fact that it was supposed to premiere at last year’s Cannes Film Festival but then didn’t and made us wait a whole year more only added to Mr. Malick’s aura of perfectionism and to the film’s mystique.

It did premiere at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, were it was met, as it was expected to, with hugely divided reactions, either extraordinary praise for its ambition or perplexed thoughts from people that really didn’t get it. I just saw the film and you can count me as part of the former and certainly not the latter. I doubt The Tree of Life will end up as my favorite film of 2011, but it certainly is the best I’ve seen so far this year, the first one I’ll award a perfect grade to, and one that made all that salivating for a new Terrence Malick film completely worth it.

But, at the same time, I can totally get why some people aren’t falling head over heels for this film. It’s a tough one to digest, more like a work of art than a film, one that has to be appreciated more than understood, and it will certainly require repeat seatings to fully grasp. Because the visual achievements of this film are undeniable, it’s just insanely great to look at, and you’ll lose yourself in its immensity easily enough, but some people won’t get much more than that out of it, because to really get the emotional aspect of it you have to be very patient with it, and let yourself go and let it all sink in. I would like to think I did that, because by its end The Tree of Life was a film that had moved me tremendously.

This really is a cinematic achievement, and I’m sure I will love it even more the next time I see it, and even more the time after that. Even if the stuff that Mr. Malick presents doesn’t resonate to you personally, even if the spiritual offerings don’t ring true with you, there’s no way you’ll leave this film having gained nothing, no way the film won’t stay with you and mean a lot to you, I just don’t know how that could be. Yes, there are bits and pieces of the film that I’m not sure I really understood, I didn’t really think it was a fully cohesive piece of work, and it got me frustrated at how overlong some scenes were at times, but that’s all stuff that you think while watching it, because once the whole movie is done and you’re left pondering about the experience of the film as whole, you’ll be blown away by even those bits that you thought weren’t working at all.

And the ambition level behind is just astonishing, it evokes everything, it talks about things as wide and complex as creation, and things as personal and just as complex as family without ever taking a moment to let you breathe. In the end it’s just a very honest film, and asks some questions that are very hard to answer, ones that won’t go down easy, and because of that I think The Tree of Life is a film that has finally shown us the real power of this art form, film hasn’t been put to this use before.

I don’t know if I should tell you exactly what this film is about, or the stuff it does along the way because I fear it may take away from your experience. It’s a vastly bold film that takes on the task of encompassing all of creation and viewing it all through the lives of members of one American family, and it achieves a marriage of impeccable vision and incredible humanity with a level of success I think is unparalleled in film history. And I would like to go on for longer about the merits of this film, but this review is already twice as long as my usual ones, and I’m sure when I check it for spelling mistakes once I’m done I will have the urge to edit it down a whole lot, but I won’t, because even if this may feel like blabbering at times I think it illustrates just how much I adored this film. I’ve just find out what it means to finally see a film I’ve been waiting two whole years to see come to fruition, and Mr. Malick delivered like crazy, not only giving me a film as great as I expected it to be, but also giving me something there’s no way I could have ever really expected.

Grade: A+

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