The word I have come to associate most with The Tree of Life in the past couple weeks is "hyperbole". Some people say that it's the "worst movie ever made", which is obnoxious and completely ridiculous. Really, it's the worst movie ever? Just because it's unconventional? The beautiful images, at least, don't score any points with you? On the other end of the spectrum, I hear that it'll "change your life" or that it's "what cinema is made for", which is also crazy. The Tree of Life is not film at its very best, but rather simply film doing something different. It also does not transcend the screen in any profound, life-altering way. It might elicit some eye-squinting, chin-grabbing, glasses-chewing "hmmm"s, but if it fundamentally alters the way you think about the world we live in, chances are you never really thought about it before to begin with. No, The Tree of Life isn't film perfection, or the best film ever, or of the year or even Malick's best, but it is a great film and more importantly an interesting film and one worth seeing and sitting through, perhaps more than once.
So now that I've officially lead with what reads like a conclusion, let's discuss the film itself. It is hitting American theaters now after a tremendous amount of hype and interest. I don't think anyone going into the film knows quite what they're in for, but with the director being who he is, the product of his labors should come as no surprise. Malick has always been unconventional, highly-visual, highly-lyrical filmmaker, but The Tree of Life seems to take his tendencies and distill them down to their purest forms. The film is his least narratively-inclined. The story of the film, one could say, focuses on a 1950's Texas family with
Stuck in the middle (actually nearer to the beginning) is a sequence of breathtaking shots depicting the beginning of all things, Earth, life and man. I loved this portion of the film and while I enjoyed the family sequences too, I could have watched this go on for the full 2.5 hour runtime. (Perhaps someday I'll get my wish as Malick is said to be currently working on a documentary that would do just that). It's exciting to see these images and know that you share a world with them.
The two distinct portions of the film come together in that both mean to show how we came to be. The latter does so on a much larger scale, showing quite literally the miracle of life, while the former aims to show how our development makes us into the people we are as adults, which would then effect subsequent generations. The two are certainly more connected than even that though as we are meant to realize that every event, from the dawn of life on Earth and perhaps before, has had an impact (though it may be minute) on the lives we live and who we eventually become.
Chastain and Pitt have their own ways of raising their three, onscreen sons and this parental duel ultimately creates the man we see in the presumably present scenes featuring Sean Penn ("Mother. Father. Always you wrestle inside me.") He doesn't become either one of them, in which case life could be described as more of a circle. He is from them, but not them; a branch moving in a direction away from them, but still wholly connected and even further down resides the whole of the tree and the rest of humanity and existence.
There's a fair amount of voice-over in the film as well; nothing expository, just some lyrical musings that I found less interesting than the visuals at the time of viewing. I won't dismiss them without seeing the film for a second time, but admittedly I didn't pay as much attention to them as some of the film's other elements.
Malick is allegedly working on a six-hour version of the film, which I would be all for (though I might have to take it in two parts). The potential for what can be shown within the film is endless. Apparently a great deal more of the family's "story" was filmed than what was shown. However, what does appear in this abridged cut is very interesting and quite an accomplishment. I applaud Malick for his ability to capture this story of life itself like no one has in film before. The Tree of Life isn't going to be everyone's cup of tea, so to speak, and I wouldn't fault anyone for not liking it. It's not like any film you're likely to see in wide-release. That doesn't make it better or worse than conventional films, it just makes it different and these days that's a quality that's starting to become rare.