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The Tree Of Life

The Tree Of Life

By Jonahh Oestreich • December 25th, 2012
Static Mass Rating: 5/5
THE TREE OF LIFE (MOVIE)
Fox Searchlight Pictures

Original release: May 16th, 2011
Running time: 139 minutes

Writer and director: Terrence Malick

Cast: Sean Penn, Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain, Hunter McCracken

The Tree Of Life

Terrence Malick’s latest piece is not a movie in the strictest sense; it is a poem, possibly incomprehensible in its wholeness, brimming over with humility, grace and reclusive metaphors, and beautifully abysmal. Like a poem, there are few words, but what is said in the sparse dialogues reverberates long and never quite abates.

We are in 1950’s Texas and get involved with a family of 5. A father who on the surface is an austere pragmatist (“It takes fierce will to get ahead in this world.”), a soulful and forgiving mother (“Unless you love, your life will flash by.”) and their three sons. Not an extraordinary family, sorrows and joys come and go as you’d expect, the boys grow up seemingly untroubled and keen to become men; life goes on and on and on. It’s equally an impressionistic and an evocative portrait of everyday life.

Essentially, we follow the eldest son Jack from the innocence of childhood to the disenchantment of adulthood and his spiritual quest. Quite much seems to depend on whether he can reconcile the world views of his parents (Jessica Chastain and Brad Pitt), and that is where The Tree Of Life embarks on an impossible journey as it becomes a tale on the wonders of life and life’s imperfections — Malick attempts to envelop nothing less than everything from galaxy clusters down to the minutest human emotions.

It might help if you are a poet yourself, not necessarily in the literary sense, but somewhere in your heart you should sense that true artistic expression almost always has something to say, even if it demands patience and letting go. I see Malick as a storyteller of a peculiar old school, one of those who tell their stories regardless of the audience’s satisfaction. He seems to handle the raw material, his scenes and visuals, the acoustic space and all dimensions he can think of with mere, though trained and extremely experienced intuition. Sometimes it feels like he is editing dreams and memories, not actually a film.

The Tree Of Life

Being a lost soul in a modern world, Malick’s protagonist Jack (Sean Penn) represents millions of people, and the search for spiritual grace and re-connection with nature has become a basic human need at last, or once again. Maybe the Midwestern family in The Tree Of Life is one of the few intact oases to seek basic but seemingly forgotten truths, and what might seem regressive becomes a means to return to the literal moments of life or the branches of its Tree.

The film asks you to pause and step back, to listen and to see. There are two deaths that are hardly narrated, let alone explained. But their impact is palpable, they are reversals of emotion and meaning. These scenes in particular contribute to The Tree Of Life being a masterpiece, resolving its somewhat non-narrative story and often discontinuous visuals.

Eventually, Malick also appears to have the end of all things in mind. Towards the finale, it felt like The Tree Of Life was subtly denying an unambiguous message. When Jack says “Guide us to the end of time”, there is this foreboding again that life doesn’t mean anything unless it’s given a meaning. This might be a truism, but The Tree Of LifeMalick squashes that cliché, too, and looks for its essence when he merges past, present and future in an awe-inspiring finale.

To me, Hunter McCracken as the teenage Jack is the indisputable star of the film. The young actor fills his role with an intensity and nativeness that well carries the whole weight of the story. Here again, his few words are anything but a lack of words; this character speaks loud and clear. In many ways, The Tree Of Life is a trenchant statement against a language that has no words yet for what really matters, regardless of what matters to each one of us.

Maybe once life has flashed by, there are only memories — images, sounds, dreamlands and hope. I think this is what there is to take away from The Tree Of Life, this is what the film is telling me, maybe, at the moment… There’s only a handful of films that, like this one, can induce a lasting sense of haunting euphoria. They all speak a visual language that is often elusive to contemporary words, and not least that’s why they belong in the history books of cinema.

The Tree Of Life (2011)

Jonahh Oestreich

Jonahh Oestreich

One of the Editors in Chief and our webmaster, Jonahh is a photographer and journalist who has been working in the media industry for over 15 years, mainly in television, design and art. As a boy, he made his first short film with an 8mm camera and the help of his father. His obsession with (moving) images and stories hasn’t faded since.

His passion for intricate stories and the ‘seven basic plots’ (ask him!) often times makes his friends and family put him in the doghouse for "predicting" too many twists and endings.

You can follow Jonahh on Twitter @Resonance_Zero.

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