Tree of Life is one of the most poignant films I’ve ever watched. Even before the end, I started a process of self reflection. Interestingly, the film is almost silent. And it still might have worked if it was. It is very performance-driven which really engages with the audience because a lot of things are not explained, they are projected through the stars’ performances. The first 20 minutes might prove unbearable for passive viewers. In fact, at the beginning, the only incentives for watching the film are the names behind it (Malick, Pitt) and the fact that it won this year’s top prize at Cannes.
The Tree of Life concept is a theological concept that has been used by different civilizations of the ages. The Chinese, Africans and ancient Mayans, besides most of the recognized religions like the Baha’i, Christianity, Buddhism and Kabala. Some of the ideologies of the Tree of Life mythology have been revisited in other films like The Fountain as based on the book of the same name.
As for plot, the film doesn’t really have a discernible one. There is really no way to explain what the film is about, but that doesn’t mean it is necessarily complicated. In fact, I find very accessible, in terms of, every one can totally relate to whatever the characters are going through. We can simply say the film is about life. I’d call it a montage of the soul. There are various montages that seem to question (or at least encourages you to) question the meaning of life. What are we doing here? What am I meant to do?
There’s a sequence involving an arrest, where one of the O’Brien ponders if he could also end up like that. I also found myself questioning why humans are so different. Why is it that all creatures of the same species are alike? Like, all lions have the same characteristics, right? How come no two human beings are the same? How come you can live or grow up under the exact same conditions with someone else but still have very noticeable differences?
The film shows the ways the O’Brien’s have chosen to bring up their kids. Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt) is firm and authoritarian. Mrs. O’Brien (Jessica Chastain) is more democratic. Despite his treatment of his children, you never once think of Pitt’s character as a meanie or a villain. Within the harsh words and slaps, there is a caring parent who wants nothing more than to bring upright children who can defend themselves. His wife serves as a balance to her husband’s highhandedness. As much as the couple’s approaches to parenting are very different, they never really seem to oppose each other. In any other scenario, it would be a recipe for tension and maybe even marital strife. Except for one scene, we never get the sense that that might be the case. Through Mr. O’Brien’s toughness, we realize, there’s probably some insecurities or maybe him just making up for what he lacked in his childhood.
The film is set in the ‘50s in the City of Waco, Texas but it might as well be a suburban Kenyan estate in the ‘90s. The times are innocent, kids play outside all day. They go out on adventurous expeditions and are cruel to small animals. They break windows and swim in forbidden rivers. Everyone can see themselves in the children. The streets are always empty and there never seems to be any danger. The kids have nothing but themselves to be occupied with. No gaming consoles, Slip ‘N’ Slides or even toys, for that matter.
An incident in a swimming pool is the kids’ first experience with death and they have pretty naïve questions about it, which might as well be more mature than an adult’s perception. It reminded of my first experience with death when I was six years old and how it shaped my feelings towards such things. Up to this day, I never EVER view a body.
Since the story doesn’t really have a plot we can talk about, the thing to be discussed are the performances. They are all very good, sometimes even fascinating, if not shocking. I’m referring to a scene where we see Jack’s (the older version played by Hunter McCracken and Sean Penn) character as a baby. You see the fascination and the reception he gets as only new parents could afford. We see baby steps, and the first sign of Mr. O’Brien’s parenting style.
The fascinating scene is when the next child is born and you can clearly see the child’s confusion at another being of its kind (and size). You can even sense jealousy in a close-up of the child’s face. There’s obviously know CGI involved. That, and the resulting sequence is probably one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen on film. It’s hard to imagine how Terrence Malick was able to direct a kid who is less than a year old to perform an action, and how he did it with no cuts. The saddest thing about the performances in this film, as good as they are, I don’t any of them getting any of the major award nominations (though I’m almost certain they’ll get one for ensemble at the SAG). This is because the performances are very contained, all they do is project in a very restrained way and nothing more. They don’t make sense without the very close and intimate camerawork by Emmanuel Lubezki who did Nike’s Write the Future commercial (partly shot in Kenya) and some astounding work on Children of Men, most famously, a seven and a half minute no-cut action shot.
The gaudy camerawork creates an almost out of body experience for the viewer, maybe why we feel like the events mirror our own lives. Hunter McCracken is a revelation, his is probably going to stand as one of the year’s best performances. For some weird reason, he does exude some Sean Penn-ish air. Penn plays the old version of Jack and seems be greatly affected about his relationship with his father even later in life.
The almost absent dialogue probably explains why the performances are very restrained and why the camera is so close to the character’s faces. Where words are absent, we have to understand their feelings from their emotions. Sometimes whatever they feel is told through some kind of voiceover mechanism, almost like thoughts. The few times that you can see interaction and dialogue, the sounds are drowned out by Alexandre Desplat’s score. Listening to his work on this film, I wasn’t sure if it was original work but it is amazingly good. That’s an Oscar in the bag if it is.
The film is told on three planes, the story of Jack’s upbringing, Jack’s adulthood and the creation of life forms, from what I assume is the big bang, to the formation of organisms in the sea, dinosaurs and the oneness of nature. From all this, the audience is meant to deduce the connection and put it all together. To be honest, I did not fully connect the nature bits with the story in the film though I’m certain it must mean something. In almost every shot, there’s a sound of nature. Wind, rustling leaves, water besides the score. There’s also a lot of emphasis on a tree outside the family’s home.
Tree of Life may not resonate with a lot of audiences because it is not campy or blockbuster-ish but it is definitely one of the finest films ever made, and its effect or greatness will only be realized later on multiple viewings. With all the great films coming out around this time, I’m still almost certain that it is the film to beat at next year’s Oscars.