Movie Review: The Tree of Life- Terrence Malick’s Purely Visual Experience is a Marvel of High Concept Filmmaking

Creation, destruction. Life, death. These two inevitable concepts that are forever forged with one another are the key to understanding Terrence Malick’s newest conceptual study entitled Tree of Life. Malick isn’t a conventional filmmaker nor is he a conventional storyteller. It’s easy to understand why many wouldn’t care for his style since it’s practically self-indulgent as he constantly moves the camera and ambiguously ponders large ideas that are never given an answer. He can also be defined as a philosopher in a vacuum; he picks out pieces of select metaphysical concepts that drive the tone throughout each of his films that meander about his fragmented narratives. Let’s just say that when it comes to conceptual work Malick has more in common with Sergei Eisenstein than he does with more coherent filmmakers such as Stanley Kubrick. Anyone unfamiliar with his work that drifts into Tree of Life will be impatient, confused, and inevitably frustrated. However, unlike some of his more languid work such as The New World or Days of Heaven, Tree of Life is a full on conceptual and visual experience that is masterfully put together. It’s a film that attempts to contemplate the eternal questions of life and death, their impossibility of separation, and how our place in nature could be complimented by a transcendent quality known as grace. There are no definite answers in Tree of Life, an ambiguity that might torment many viewers, but it definitely utilizes beautiful imagery and poetic narration to ignite an undeniably enlightening experience.

Tree of Life is an interesting concoction of autobiographical storytelling, the story of creation and evolution, retrospective contemplation, and abstract visual experience. The movie opens up with a quote from the book of Job that says in most translations, “”Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me, if you understand.” Already this introduces the concept of human suffering on earth or at least the inevitability of death, which is only one of the meandering thoughts that weave in and out of the disjointed presentation that takes place with a death in Malick’s autobiographical setting of America in the 1950s. This brings a conversation about nature and grace, which is actually represented in the father (Brad Pitt) and mother (Jessica Chastain). Nature is the natural order of things, an impersonal universe (visualized with cold planets, dinosaurs, or a meteorite) that drives the finite aspects on earth be it ambition, money, or creativity. Grace is that guiding hand behind the creation of nature or the appreciation of music or art that tries to bring an understanding to the daunting question of why we might be here. All of this is done with immaculate camera work that is signature of all Malick films, definitely due to aid of cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (Children of Men, The New World). The only thing that can explain The Tree of Life is that it’s a purely methodical experience or rather pure concept. You can marvel at its beauty but at times it’s understandable if an audience member feels disconnected from Malick’s own ponderings of life, death, God, or the Universe. Close to the end it seems as though the idea that what is truly important is love, our relationships, and how they can possibly continue on in an afterlife that we all arrive in at the same time, no matter the time of death. Malick’s The Tree of Life isn’t so much a spiritual experience but a theological experience, and that in and of itself should be greatly respected.

Anyone who is looking for a straightforward story probably wouldn’t venture into a Malick film so it’s difficult to recommend this sort of contemplation film to a wide audience. But the dazzling camera work mixed with stunning music, a wide variety of effects (both special and camera), and tightly used narration should at least satisfy most wandering viewers. Malick fans won’t be disappointed and suffice it to say it’s his best visual and conceptual work since The Thin Red Line. The fact that the film wants to tackle so many intellectually intimidating questions about the marriage of life and death or the idea of a graceful hand being behind the intricate process of evolution certainly makes it an overwhelming experience. However, Malick performs the task of being our curious guide who might not have all the answers but introduces the questions in a meticulous fashion. Most audiences don’t want to confront these extremely thought provoking ideas and yet even if they have the desire to contemplate the inevitable they certainly don’t expect it to be done in such a fragmented and purely visual way. Narration aside, all the dialogue in this film could fill perhaps 10 pages of the script. The Tree of Life is art cinema at its best despite the languid atmosphere that can feel a bit detached through some of its more intangible moments and yet through the visual presentation it is a positively enrapturing one of a kind experience.

Grade: B+

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