The Tree of Life–a very late review

After avoiding it for a long, long time, I finally got around to seeing Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, a movie some of my film buff friends say is one of the greatest ever made. Others say it’s total crap. So I knew a film that polarizing had to at least be interesting.

Oh, it was.

First of all, it’s beautiful, gorgeous and soaring. Some of the imagery made me feel the same way I did the first time I heard the closing section of Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring, like I had reached out and touched something far bigger than myself and it had reached back. Even if you think the movie is pretentious (and it is), you’re bowled over by the imagery. For that alone, it’s a great film.

Second of all, abandon all ideas you have of linear storytelling, and just let the emotions of what you’re seeing wash over you. Don’t try to put things in order until after it’s over otherwise you’ll miss the whole thing. Dialog is heard in passing, as if people are talking in a room as you walk by in a hallway. It’s an utterly spellbinding effect. The camera is always moving – life is about motion. Experimental and mostly abstract, this is a work of art.

The movie begins with a family receiving the news in the 1960s that one of their sons has died. Later we see the oldest brother in the present day remembering the brother he lost. The time frame then jumps to the beginning of the universe, the creation of our solar system and the first stirrings of prehistoric life on earth. It then stops on its headlong rush through natural history to focus on the life story the oldest boy growing up in Texas in the 1950s, and then speeds on again to the end of the earth as the sun expands to a giant red fireball and then wastes away to a pitiful white dwarf, amid images of death and the afterlife.

Basically, that’s the plot.

But there’s something in the middle of the story that struck me and will stay with me – it’s the performance of Brad Pitt as a too stern, too critical father. In most other films, such a character would be played as the bad guy, but not here. He’s not the bad guy… he’s not the good guy. He’s a father with faults who’s doing the best he can. In all the scenes where he loses his temper, where he scores emotional damage on his children because of his own life disappointments and the lessons he failed to learn, where he always fails to see the good and always strives to find something to criticize, you never ever doubt the love he has for his boys and his wife. And that is simply one of the most brilliant portrayals I’ve seen in a movie in a long time… and accomplished without a linear storyline or typical “Hollywood” scenes.

My first reaction as the credits rolled was: I don’t know what the hell I just saw, but I sure do miss my family.

I’ll log The Tree of Life down as one of the greatest films ever made, but with this warning: it’s not for the easily bored or the faint of heart.

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