Pretentious or profound? Crap or classic? First, eh, a little note about vague movies in general.
It is rather strange that in a blog like this, we have to describe film using words. Describing one medium in the form of another medium. That makes it sometimes impossible to describe what a film is about, because sometimes a film just wants to create a feeling, or a vision. The Tree of Life is one of such films. And film not always has to give a clear answer to the question of what it is about, but once you start describing it in words, it all gets forced into very specific concepts.
Films like these, film that are vague or unclear, or seem to hesitate to be about something specifically, are sometimes thought of as pretentious, and their directors can never count on good box office gross. Critic Roger Ebert wrote a very interesting essay about this, which helps us to understand the reactions to a film like The Tree of Life.
What Ebert’s essay comes down to is that people very much want films to be about something, and that has always been the way films were discussed and criticized until the French New Wave broke all the narrative rules in the 60s. The Wave crossed the Atlantic to the US, and Hollywood directors were sort of released from the constrains of normal narrative and started experimenting, producing the weirdest movies that rested on not much more than feelings. However, directors found themselves in a conundrum because while they were freer to explore their artistic side, their measurement of success was still tied to the box office. And people still didn’t warm up for vague movies with unclear stories.
Therefore, a film like The Three of Life that wants to create a feeling, most of all, is seen as daring from inside the industry, but seen as a breach of expectations and pretentious navel-gazing by many theatre-goers. Of course, everyone is completely free to choose the type of storytelling that speaks to them. There is no wrong way to watch movies, no matter what anyone says, and everyone is free to engage with movies in their own way. Still, miscommunications can occur between creator and audience.
So, at this point it would be heresy for me to ask what the film is about. Director Terrence Malick would ask me: why do you need a clear answer to that? Other art forms don’t have to answer that question. Music doesn’t have to answer that question; listen to a symphony and if it is beautiful, you’re happy. Why be so adamant that sequences of pictures or scenes need to have narrative? Where does that expectation come from? It’s an experience, and if I explain it, I run the risk of suggesting that the audience isn’t smart enough to understand it. So, I can tell you what happens, but the story is not the focus and there is no ending to give away.
So, here goes nothing. The film is about the grace of life. How it slaps us in the face sometimes, or gives us joy. It tries to encompass everything that life stands for. Starring Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain as a couple, and Sean Penn, their son. We follow two generations through their ups and downs, and seeing those ups and downs as a representation of the basic struggles of all humanity. It has the same ambitious feeling as Baraka (1992), The Fountain (2006) and Boyhood (2014), but The Tree is Life is much, much more explicit in how it contrasts little human struggles with the size and power of the universe, and in its religious messages. Malick shows endless forms, large galaxies and small bubbles, forming and breaking apart, and contrasts that with the whisper of a mother, mourning a loss. He even shows the history of life and lets dinosaurs walk across the screen (listen to the sound of critics falling out of their chairs).
The imagery is beautiful. Malick focuses on sensations, like a hand under a stream of water, a hand holding a candle, a hand touching grass. He captures striking images that populate our own lives, like someone wandering through a forest, or skyscrapers in the sunlight, but also images of galaxies. We see Sean Penn as a particular person at home, but as one of millions in his office environment. But at work, he can’t help still being that particular person, and on this day, he mourns the passing of his brother. The same brother we saw Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain mourning over a few scenes, a few decades, back. This is how Malick moves his camera. He flows back and forth through time, and every time invoking the sensations that are peculiar about that moment and that situation.
It’s undeniably beautiful. Most of the credit here has to go to the cinematography and art departments. The film relies heavily on beautiful shots, and that is almost cheating. You cannot make a film about the grace of life without showing the beauty of it, but the film can’t take credit for the beauty of nature and life. Only for the way it edited and presented that beauty. And rarely has nature been presented so beautifully. And rarely has growing up been presented so beautifully. There is a stunning sequence of two brothers growing up with Smetana’s Moldau playing in the background and dynamic camera movements. In general, the flowing cameras and the characters are much more compelling than in Boyhood (2014).
I guess, in the end, that Malick’s film is about dealing with tragedy too, and that what saves you and comforts you in the face of tragedy is a sense of grace in life, which is sort of embodied by Jessica Chastain in the film. The focus on sensations point to a certain mindfulness of beauty. The focus on large scales in time and space point towards seeing your life as a tiny part of a magnificent whole. I still prefer Ron Fricke’s Samsara (2011), because it is less blunt about its message. Malick is actually quite strict in his vision, and blunt with his religious elements.
If you stop wanting the movie to follow the direction you want it to go, if you stop wanting it to be something else and give over to it, then you can’t help but be touched by it.