TREE OF LIFE is visually stunning but too ambitious

June 19, 2011

Originally published in The Michigan Daily

Movies are miraculous. Projected illusions of life, engineered to entertain and keep us in our seats, collected in the dark for hours on end – it’s all very silly, after all. But film taps something inside people that nothing else does, hitting a rhythmic visual chord that is – at least to an extent – organic and natural.

There are rules, though.

Sometimes, you can make a film like visual poetry, as did Godfrey Reggio in his 1980s films “Koyaanisqatsi” and “Powaqqatsi.” Ron Fricke then continued in 1992 with “Baraka.” All three pictures were montages of nature and civilization, without narrative.

Those movies are cool. Awesome, actually, if you have the energy to stay awake. But when you see a trailer for a film featuring Brad Pitt and Sean Penn in leading roles, you don’t expect that. You expect face-time, and lots of it. And when that doesn’t quite happen – when a film experience is so completely different than what you expect – how do the masses in the dark respond?

Easy. They walk out.

Forget the rhythmic chord inside us. Film is a social thing, not only independent but something to facilitate our interactions with others. And when the first 40 minutes of “Tree of Life” turn out lifelessly incomprehensible, it’s not surprising to see people flocking back to the ticket counter to retrieve their 12 bucks, or actually booing the film, as occurred at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.

The film has a whispery-beautiful opening set in the 1950s around the O’Brien family, a young couple and their three boys. The mother (Jessica Chastain, “Jolene”) sets up the opposition of “grace” and “nature” – the balance of spirituality and humanity that tugs on both ends of the film.

That “nature” is presented as the stern Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt, “Inglourious Basterds”), who teaches his sons that they must fight to find their place in the world. His antithesis is Chastain’s delicate performance as his wife, who strives to be the “grace” end of the equation.

The film begins with the death of one of their sons, as presented in mysterious jump cuts and unexplained hints. The parents despair and contemplate the death of a child in each of their own ways.

Then it all takes a strange turn, thrusting into a half-hour (or at least it feels that long) exploration of forests, the cosmos, dinosaurs and volcanoes (among many, many other things) throughout which not a word is spoken.

And that’s when the audience may become somewhat unruly, and it’s hard to blame them.

But right when you think the ordeal will never end, it does, pushing the story back to the O’Briens and, in a different time and place, their grown-up eldest son Jack (Sean Penn, “Milk”), who barely says a word but his eyes seem to contemplate mortality.

Jack is the focus of the rest of the film – his younger version, played by newcomer Hunter McCracken, grows from an innocent youth to a troubled adolescent. He witnesses the drowning of a friend, which prompts him to whisper to the heavens, “Why should I be good if you aren’t?”

“The Tree of Life” is an utterly polarizing picture, and not only in the way you experience it. It’s a story of fathers and sons, death and God, poetry and pragmatism. As a whole, though, it’s about more, and it’s about you – about the way you approach life, faith and the decisions therein.

By the end of the film, who is still sitting in the theater? Perhaps it’s the population of only one end of that central balance.

On the technical side, the cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki (“Children of Men”) is the epitome of stunning, and even in its dullest moments, the film is an unforgettable picturescape that wows the eyes.

Yet, as sumptuous as it is, the film struggles to satisfy even the most patient. Character arcs are told in glimpses and whispered voiceovers, not the screams of regular summer fare. It is a testament to director Terrance Malick’s (“The Thin Red Line”) genius that there are discernable arcs at all.

But if only there were something more to take away, an easy reward for our patience. For a film that seems so beautiful and meaningful, it veers awfully close to commonplace nonspecificity of purpose.

Film professors will tell you; If you can tell a story without saying a word, do it. Terrance Malick tries something in that vein and succeeds in many ways. The film can change the way you see storytelling on the screen. Whether that change is for the better or worse really depends on your own outlook.

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