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The Tree of Life

June 13, 2011

There are few films that completely break away from the normal standards of cinema anymore. The majority of films today tell a story linearly with a conflict and ultimately resolution. However, The Tree of Life strays away from those simple conventions and instead jars audience attention through its non-linear narrative and lack of overall conflict. The Tree of Life follows a deeply devout 1950s suburban family in Texas. It is revealed in the opening scene that one of Mrs. O’Brien’s (Jessica Chastain) three sons has died. The film then follows how she and her husband Mr. O’Brian (Brad Pitt) deal with the death as well as how her son Jack (Sean Penn) is still affected by the death in his later years.

The Tree of Life is not what you expect it to be, or if you’re a Terrence Malick fan maybe it is. It’s hands down one of the most intriguing films I’ve ever seen and I’m still searching my head to figure the entire experience out. It has elements of an experimental art-house Koyannisqatsi influenced type of film as well as embodying the theme of existentialism similar to The Fountain, but it also caters to the human experience and raises questions like ‘why do bad things happen to good people’ also explored in A Serious Man. Yet The Tree of Life is completely unique and impressive in its delivery telling a story in a way that hasn’t been done since Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

The Tree of Life is one of the most original films to come out in decades. It’s more of an art piece than a story but it’s captivating and hard to look away from the O’Brien family. Filmed with a hand-held camera, Malick heavily uses tight close-ups and quick movements to follow whichever character is captured at the time, allowing viewers to feel less like a fly on the wall and more of an active participant observing the family. Devout in their beliefs, voiceovers from each character gives insight to the questions that began to arise within each character  as they question the notion of God and his ways much like the book of Job in which The Tree of Life gets its inspiration. Answers aren’t given however, forcing viewers to contemplate and debate their own thoughts throughout and after the film.

Malick’s visual eye is stunning and he captures some truly breathtaking shots. In a montage of the universe, Malick uses technology to its fullest ability by taking images only captured through the Hubble telescope and giving them life and depth emphasizing the beauty and magnificence of outer space. At times I forgot that I was watching a drama based around a family and not Planet Earth. The montage made me realize that scenes like it are perhaps the few in which 3D would be an enticing addition.

Now depending on what you expect from a film starring Brad Pitt and Sean Penn, The Tree of Life can be an intense captivating experience or a boring pointless one. In a nutshell it is an art-house film that raises many questions throughout but never delivers answers. Because of its non-linear plot structure, The Tree of Life may be hard to follow for some viewers. The story is not told in chronological order and although viewers are presented with mundane day-to-day experiences in the O’Brien home, the editing allows scenes to move quickly. The introduction of the family’s life doesn’t even begin until almost an hour in and a good chunk of the film is spent on merely visuals of the cosmos and natural wonders of Earth as opposed to story. Regardless, The Tree of Life is a beautiful film and aesthetically very impressive and fresh. My only gripe was that for two hours viewers are welcomed into the home of this family and are shown in painstaking detail nearly every aspect of their lives, yet we are still never revealed key elements of the story.

Nevertheless, The Tree of Life is definitely a film of its own accord and will draw you in whether you understand it or not. The performances are great, the directing is exceptional, and the visuals are astounding. If films that don’t follow the typical linear storytelling method aren’t your thing then The Tree of Life may not be your cup of tea but, it’s a film that’s worth seeing and contemplating your own beliefs with.

SEE IT. And prepare to have your mind kicked into ass.

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