Saturday, August 27, 2011

The Tree of Life (2011) - A Bittersweet Symphony That's Life

After a long time now, I'm finding myself writing a non-Indian review again - only the second published on this blog. Many things are changing in my life at the moment, mostly mental things. I stopped learning Arabic, and I don't feel the urge to learn new languages (except French at school) anymore. 
I don't feel like watching Indian films, I'm tired of a lot of films that wasted my time.
Hence I felt I needed to review a film that meant a lot to me and has had a great influence on my thoughts for the past few days. 

In all my past reviews, I had a small section saying who the director, the authors and the actors were, and a short sentence about the plot. You won't be seeing that again. As I said, my mentality or however you may call it, is changing more than usually at the time, and I have also, in addition to many other things, thought about Lime Reviews. So this is one of the alterations I've made. 

The names "Brad Pitt" and "Sean Penn" are pictured as large as the film title itself, obviously due to promotional reasons - but I think it's an inappropriate choice. For the two persons (apart from the director), who made this film most special to me, are Jessica Chastain (Mrs. O'Brien, the mother) and Hunter McCracken (young Jack). Jessica's portrayal of the mother is fantastic, her role being a very important part of the film. She is like a princess, a fairy, who has devoted all of her life to her children, and who is literally too good or perfect for this world. The pain she goes through when her boy dies seemed so pure and real that I couldn't even cry. Of course, her husband must feel about the same way, but he is always at a distance, cold and brutal without ever damaging his children physically. I felt sorry for him, because at a certain point, I understood him - but I also hated him with every inch of my body.

The eldest son, Jack, is a rather "tough" character, as he theoretically isn't easy to relate to, for me. I've obviously never been a boy, never grown up in the 50s with a father like his and never lost a sibling. However, (young) Jack happened to be the one character I sympathized most with, maybe even more than Mrs. O'Brien.
Even though he hates his father, Jack knows that he resembles him more than his beloved mother, which perhaps makes him develop a tremendous self-hatred. He thinks he isn't good enough for his family, his brother being the angel-like opposite of him, and therefore doesn't even try to do things "right". As much as I was amazed by the young boy's performance, I was rather disappointed by both the character and Sean Penn's portrayal of grown-up Jack. Supposably, the role was somehow shortened by the editors and/ or producers, meaning Sean Penn had no influence on this at all. But couldn't he have drawn more out of the character? Or was it the director's, or even the authors' fault? I guess we'll never know.

I don't have that much to say to Brad Pitt - his performance was solid and adequate, though what's most important is, that I didn't see Brad Pitt, but I saw Mr. O'Brien. The more famous and respected an actor or actress becomes, the tougher but also the more important it gets, that they make you see the character instead of themselves. Besides, that's a big problem in Bollywood, in my opinion - many actors don't get this. Pitt's O'Brien was harsh, grim, and not even sexy, and he had a background that shone through. Terrence Malick did a good job at making Mr. O'Brien seem rather nice and "good" at the beginning, and then letting him grow more and more stiff and tetchy, while at the end he seemed to get back to normal again, a little.

Now Jack could be called the protagonist of the story, but I don't think he is. If there is a protagonist at all, I'd say it's nature, or maybe simply "mother" - all the mothers in this world, Mother Earth as well as Mrs. O'Brien. But I might be totally mistaking here - perhaps it was the intention of Malick to create a film without a protagonist, that isn't an ensemble-film either?

Like many others, I think that in order to understand it, the film must be divided into two halves, of which the first one is shorter than the last one, but still may feel longer. Differently from other films, you don't get the answer to all your w-questions at the beginning, but are much more pitchforked into the feelings and the mental state of the characters. There's also many repetitions and long-drawn scenes at the beginning as well as the very end of the film, which might scare you that this is going to be a dull, over-hyped arthouse film, but with the time you catch interest in the story and also get used to the rather slow narration. The long, mysterious nature sequences in the first half also disturbed me at first, but I found myself relaxing and just flowing with the tide, philosophizing. This is probably what Malick wanted the audience to do: sit still for a while, luxuriate in the music and pictures and reflect on yourself and life. The sequence stops at just the right time, when you're finally growing a bit weary of it, and the film moves on in a more conventional way, which has strokes of both arthouse and common films. 

There is, however, something about this film, which is strongly different from everything else I've seen before, not even arthouse. I'd say I can't, but taking the advice from Mr. O'Brien I'm saying: it's hard to pinpoint this "thing". Maybe it's something I've seen in short films, a genre in which generally emotions, music and the sub-contious or the "between the lines" is more important than an overflow of straight-forward dialogue and narration. In a way, The Tree of Life, can be seen as an extremely over-length short. There are so many emotions, so many hints, symbols and ideas that one could write a whole book trying to interpret or analyze it. We know straight from the start how the film is going to end, and the flash-backs are more like a small indentation with the purpose of letting us dive into the life of this family so we somehow feel we're a part of it. Now that I'm thinking about it, it reminds me of the pensieve from Harry Potter. The user/ audience dives into the memories of someone and is at the same time inside of the memories, but also on the outside. 

Religion is also an important aspect of The Tree of Life, and I believe what you "get out" of this film depends strongly on your personal relation to this subject. Personally, I have gone through many phases concerning religion in my comparatively short life. I have had a strictly atheist-phase, a Buddhism/ rather Hinduism phase, an (American) Indian spirit-y phase and the phase or thought I'm having right now, which is a mixture of christian values, the belief in some kind of power or interconnection in nature but also a critical approach to religion in general. Religion is, of course, a very personal term and this is actually the first time I'm putting into words what I think about it at the time. The characters in the film, at least the adults, have a very strong faith in God, which both made me envy them a little, but also pity them a little. In this respect, Jack is the person I could relate to the most. His parents have told him to believe in God and his goodness (in my case it wasn't my parents but my grandparents and teachers), but as he grows up, he wonders how there can be a God, if he lets all the bad things happen. I also noticed a certain similarity between God and Mr. O'Brien, or Jack's relation to them, as both Mr. O'Brien and God set up some rules that they don't follow themselves. Most parents do that, and it can be hard to understand for children. I've learnt to understand it, but after watching the film I started wondering if it's really as fair. 

So, until now I've mostly talked about the good parts of the film, and you might be asking: can it be that perfect? The answer is, of course; no. I've already covered my disappointment about old Jack, but this disappointment actually goes farther than one might assume. The life of old Jack and how he suddenly remembers his passed away brother and childhood is supposed to be the frame of the film, the fundament, and this is where the script has failed most. There is no visible relation between young and old Jack - as hard as I tried, I couldn't see Jack in Sean Penn. Moreover, it wasn't clear enough, which of the children had died. Neither my sister nor I could find out until we looked it up on IMDB. We also couldn't agree on how many children the O'Briens had - I said two, she said four. Turns out it was three. And also: where was the third brother in the end? Hence, as much as I was fascinated by the emotion and thought based structure of the script, some things suffered from the lack of focus. 

I also wasn't too amazed by the ending, mostly because of old Jack (again, again). Without him, it might have been perfect (the ending).

In the end, though, The Tree of Life is certainly a soon-to-be-called classic and pearl of a film, challenging the boundaries and limits of filmic story-telling and technique. It's a film that, once you've left the theatre, won't ever leave you again and provokes your views on life and many other things. It could've been perfect, it wasn't. Yet, it made a very close approach. 

Good film criticism, to me, is a mixture of objectivity and subjectivity, but with a slight focus on objectivity. Of course, in blogging film criticism you can be a little more subjective, but in my opinion subjectivity may never "win" over objectivity. Concerning this film, though, the objective part of me noticed that it's hard to rate this film in an objective way, because it is so different. Many other bloggers haven't given it a rating, and I decided to follow that path. Two individuals will never experience a film in the exact same way, but they are most likely to experience it in the same way objectively (if they choose to do so) - but what happens when you can't rate a film objectively? Sorry, Mr. O'Brien, I really can't - it's not "difficult", I can't. I'm also rambling. Therefore, let me quickly tell you how I'd rate this film subjectively: 5/5 Lime Stars, or 9/10, because somehow, I just can't give it a 10 even though I'm giving it a 5/5. I don't know why. Ah, d*** it, I'm giving it a 10. A film can never be perfect, right? After all, I rated Dirty Dancing 10 on IMDB (did I really do that? ah, well... it means a lot to me), and The Tree of Life is most certainly at least equally... good. And with that, this historic review comes to an end (being by far the longest one I've ever written).



  1. I agree with pretty much everything you've said, here. And I'm glad that somebody else had trouble figuring out which of the son's died, as me and my friend had to look it up too!

    It's not a perfect film, but it is still a masterpiece. It's truly one of a kind!

  2. @ Stevee: Haha, I'm also glad that me and my sister weren't the only stupid ones.
    So true, it's a very special film.

  3. This was an excellent review. I can tell it made a huge impression on you.

    My favorite aspect about this film is how it is able to make us relate to Jack despite how different from him we may be.

    You do bring up a good point about the number of children. I couldn't figure out why there was a third brother who was almost totally ignored in the narrative. These little flaws in the editing and story are what prevent me from calling it a masterpiece.

  4. Bonjour Tristesse:
    I worked hard on it, so thanks a lot!
    --Yes, that was also something I tried to explain in this review.
    --I think someone should ask Malick if it was an "accident", or whatever it was, that the third brother was so left out... I'm not sure what to call the film, maybe it's a masterpiece, but only a "small" one?

  5. I was also confused about the third brother, so looks like its not just me !

    I agree, we are probably meant to reflect on ourselves and our life, our childhood, family, etc.

    I guess we'll be seeing some more non-Indian reviews here in future ?

    Regarding your comments on sean penn as grown up jack, take a look at this article, where penn is quoted:

  6. Chris:
    Funny, suddenly everyone I talk to about the film is confused about that third brother - and most people think it's just them.
    I'm not abandoning Indian films or anything, but I've decided or found out, that my love for those films doesn't reach as far as making me able to watch basically everything, nevermind if it's trash or masterpieces. I'll be focusing on either good, or in another way interesting films instead of watching my way through a dull gray mass. Of course, one can't avoid bad films, and it's healthy to watch some of them once in a while, but too much can make you tired.
    And I'm also focusing on the films from now on, meaning there's not really one film industry I put higher than others, they're all different but have the same "value".

    Btw, interesting article, it kind of put things in perspective.

  7. Beautiful review. I haven't seen this yet, but I've heard the words 'best film ever' used.

  8. Chris D. R. - Thank you :). Those words have been used, but I think it's a bit too much to say.


Let the discussion begin!