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The Tree of Life

The Tree of Life

Hello, here I am again, almost a year since my last post. While I probably do have a lot to say about debt ceilings, Amy Winehouse, Norway and space shuttles, my input today is, as always, a movie review.

Much like me, Terrence Malick does not produce a lot of content, just five films in the last forty or so years. If I said in my review of There Will be Blood that Daniel Day-Lewis is a bit of a lazybones, Malick seems to be almost monumentally lazy. This is not to say that he produces poor movies though; impenetrable, dialogue light and abstruse, but never bad or unambitious. After exploring colonialism and the beginnings of America last time and the battle of Guadalcanal the time before, this time Malick is focussing on life, God and the history of the universe itself.

We begin in the middle, with a telegram announcing the death of a woman's (Jessica Chastain) son and her recounting this over the phone to the father (Brad Pitt). The funeral is not seen but the aftermath is, with a family friend trying to explain the death to the mother in terms of God's plan for us all and Pitt's father character making some attempt to be stoic. We then cut to Sean Penn, the dead son's brother, all grown up and working in a faceless metropolis and heading out into the desert to remember his brother (it may be the anniversary of his death, Penn lights a candle).

After this, stay with me, the film takes you in exceptionally beautiful images through the dawn of time and the (scientific) creation of the earth. Out of the void comes life, first in the oceans, then on land; there are dinosaurs. A wounded pleiosaur dies on a primeval beach, an asteroid strikes the earth. We then move into the meat of the film (dialogue and everything!); the Sean Penn character's childhood with his ethereal mother, discplinarian but loving father and two younger brothers.

It is shot as a beautiful, painful, half-remembered time. The boy learns to hate his father and then to understand him, while his mother becomes an idealised angel, the embodiement of her own idea of 'grace'. As Malick takes us through these formative years, no definite narrative structure takes shape, we see only brief scenes; the beauty of nature, the pain of deceit, the pain of causing physical pain, how the balance of  love and discipline makes a parent. After this section is over Malick presents us with some kind of vision of the afterlife, as Penn wanders off into the desert, before the closing denouement where Malick considers the possibility of God.

Cinematography and performance are the bedrocks of the film. Penn is given the slightest part, with no time to shine or even to perform in the normal sense, and is perhaps wasted by Malick. However the other characters perform and are shot perfectly, the childhood scenes in particular are held by the actors and camerwork in a kind of delicate suspense, a dreamy otherworld of unreliable narration and beautiful imagery. Cinema can be art, performance can be real. If you didn't believe in Pitt before, you will now.

The Tree of Life is also though a meditation on beauty, life and God. Can God exist in a world of pain and suffering, a world of meaningless creations, meaningless beauty, of species that died out? As the characters explicitly say, where is he? Where was he when we were hurt, when people died? How can he not interfere in a world where so much goes unsaid, where a father cannot apologise to his son? Malick attempts to provide some answers to these questions, but perhaps not definite ones. At the beginning of the film we hear this as a voiceover:

"The nuns taught us there were two ways through life - the way of nature and the way of grace. You have to choose which one you'll follow... Grace doesn't try to please itself. Accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked. Accepts insults and injuries... Nature only wants to please itself. Get others to please it too. Likes to lord it over them. To have its own way. It finds reasons to be unhappy when all the world is shining around it. And love is smiling through all things."

The mother character represents grace throughout the film, a person, almost completely passive, who tries to see the beauty in all things. "Help each other. Love everyone. Every leaf. Every ray of light. Forgive." Nietzsche would not be pleased. Pitt's father represents nature, someone trying to forge his own way and destiny, selfish and harsh.

It is difficult though, as a committed atheist and cynic, for me to accept Malick's final vision of life and God. He presents a vision of infinite creation and beauty, of the joy and pain of living, of death, and then snatches it almost all away in an almost (despite what the critics may have said) simplistic finale. The face of God can be seen in the beauty of the universe seems to be his final message. Don't be selfish and have your own way, just look around. The world is beautiful. A fine mantra, but a reason to believe... maybe not. But then we don't know what sort of God, or what sort of beauty, Malick is asking us to belive in.

The Tree of Life is a beautiful and heartfelt film, but curiously forgettable and uninvolving. It is perhaps too sincere, too unironic to really grab. In the end, it was too subtley simple, too American (if I may say so), too Christian to truly grab me as a viewer. Life's pitfalls are dismissed with the wave of a sublime hand; you are selfish, Malick says, to dwell on meaning, pain and emptiness. Still, it is beautiful and at times deeply moving.

If you want to think a little bit, watch Brad Pitt, a dinosaur, the beginning of time and a beautiful redhead in a glass coffin, this is the film for you.

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