THE TREE OF LIFE :: Oscar Ritual 2012
The world of art becomes so much more rewarding when we move past our initial reactions of “I liked it” or “It was boring” into the arena of reflection, listening, reconsidering, and, in time, revelation. – Jeffrey Overstreet, “Sean Penn, The Tree of Life, and the difference between prose and poetry”
These words are helping me digest The Tree of Life. The minute this film by Terrence Malick came to an end I sought out commentary from appreciated film writers simply because I couldn’t form my own words. I couldn’t quite grasp what I’d just seen over the course of nearly 2.5 hours. I expected this to be the case, of course, having experienced a couple of Malick’s films in the past. I expected to not understand it. The fact that so many higher-minded people have gone before without being able to truly express all that the film means to them told me that my first viewing would simply be an introduction to this film. And so it is. But what an introduction it has been!
The most challenging aspect of The Tree of Life is the languid sequences of nature’s creative process that not only begin the film but are continually interjected within. There was a point at which I had to force myself not to tune out. Perhaps we’ve seen too many Discovery Channel specials on volcanoes and single-cell organisms and evolution of life and even the circle of life. Ultimately, my mind wanted to simply skim over these vivid depictions that felt somewhat endless rather than contemplate them in the context of the movie’s family narrative. To be honest, I didn’t really want to think about it so much; I just wanted the movie to be a simple story that was laid out before me. But I knew better than to expect this; I even put off my viewing of the film until I was ready to sit with these sequences and pay attention! Even so, I was distracted during these artistic pauses and sometimes felt anxious to return to the parallel story: a young boy’s memories of growing up with a stern father, his relationship to his younger brothers, and his constant questioning of God’s role in all that he experienced in his sorrowful youth. That story, though told in dreamy voiceover by himself and his father and mother, is really what mesmerized me throughout the film. The actors, especially, were perfect in their roles: newcomer Hunter McCracken as the boy (Jack); Brad Pitt as his very difficult father; and a very ethereal Jessica Chastain as his long-suffering mother. Each was astonishing, at times, and each carried the film to new levels as the story progressed. Sean Penn is also featured in a few segments as the older version of Jack, but I had difficulty connecting with him. It was his young counterpart who truly captivated me and whose story I most cared to follow.
I cannot help but compare this film experience with my favorite Malick film, The New World, simply because both require multiple viewings and personal introspection. I initially struggled to enjoy The New World, despite its familiar story of John Smith and Pocahontas, but its beauty and its tranquil storytelling drew me back again and again until it is now one of my all-time favorite films (in the top 15, even). But I didn’t think I liked it at all on the first viewing. And then I couldn’t stop thinking about it. What initially didn’t quite come together in my mind is now my favorite example of beauty and elegance in film-making. It is that very experience that stayed in my mind as I watched The Tree of Life. I knew I might not understand it enough to even discuss with others, but I also knew I wouldn’t be seeing it only once. Time will tell whether it haunts me in the way that The New World still haunts, but I’m excited to let The Tree of Life wash over me for a while and then return to it in short time. The one thing I do know from first viewing is that it’s worth a second and third look, if not many more throughout my lifetime.
image via Rotten Tomatoes