A sort of sadness always overtakes me when I finish watching a classic masterfully artistic film because I inevitably think to myself “I’ll never see a new movie like that in my lifetime.” I feel that way just about any time I watch a movie by great auteurs like Andrei Tarkovsky, Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini or Stanley Kubrick. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t entirely live in the past. I do enjoy new films and I think some filmmakers are doing impressive work, but it’s my belief that movies are given less freedom now, expected to zip right along and not ask too much from the audience. The Tree of Life proved my doubts to be wrong: there could be an artistic masterpiece in my lifetime.
Earlier, I wrote that Cave of the Forgotten Dreams was the best film of the summer, with Midnight in Paris not far behind, and I’ll stand by that view. The Tree of Life though is the best film of the year. I’m well aware that there’s still more movies coming out or are out now, many of which I’m very excited about (like Moneyball, Take Shelter, Hugo, and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy) but I can’t imagine any film quite comparing to The Tree of Life in terms of ambition and invention.
What is The Tree of Life about exactly? It can’t very well be summarized. In fact, I’d have an easier time summarizing what 2001: A Space Odyssey or Mulholland Drive were about than take a stab at this one. Plot-wise, it’s about a family struggling in the suburbs, spanning different times from the forties to the fifties (although I could be wrong, the timeline’s a bit spotty). The parents are Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien, played by Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain (if you haven’t heard of her, check out The Debt, now in theaters). The central character is their son Jack (played by child actor Hunter McCracken). The movie focuses on Jack’s childhood, showing moments of tenderness and bitterness with his brother, his close attachment to his mother, and his difficult relationship to his father.
Then it skips ahead to the present day, with Jack as a middle-aged man, now played by Sean Penn. He is now an important businessman who spends much of his time in skyscrapers, but can’t stop feeling nostalgic for the childhood he has lost connection with.
If this sounds tedious, it’s not. The movie isn’t linear like most American films. It skips around freely, more concerned with themes than plot. In one scene, it might feature Jack as a baby learning to walk, and in the next have Jack attending an important meeting in a business suit, and in the next… The movie jumps back thousands of years, then millions of years to show the birth of the cosmos and the formation of the planet. Seriously. One scene even shows dinosaurs (which look amazing by the way).
So how did the best film of the year do in the box office? Even with the star power of Brad Pitt and Sean Penn as well as the preeminence of director Terrence Malick, the movie did poorly, earning only half of what it cost. Sometimes Hollywood doesn’t mind losing money on a prestige picture if it gains the studio praise, which is exactly what Tree of Life did. I make a point to read many of Roger Ebert’s reviews each month, and The Tree of Life is the only movie I’ve ever seen him give 4 stars to in the last year. Often, if a movie’s excellent, he’ll give it 3 and a half. 4 stars is usually an accolade he reserves for Martin Scorsese films. Unfortunately, rave reviews weren’t enough to keep viewers from walking out of theaters.
Is it written anywhere that movies have to be linear, or that they have to have a lot of dialogue, or have to make perfect sense all of the time? If that rule were in place, then we’d never have movies like 8 1/2 or Persona or Solaris.
So The Tree of Life isn’t for everyone, but I’d still insist everyone watch it. The Tree of Life is an experience as much as it’s a movie–and, even if you can’t make sense of it or are bored, you won’t forget it.
Read other movie reviews.
If you act fast, you can hopefully catch The Tree of Life in second-run theaters now (and it’s a movie to be best enjoyed in a dark room witha huge screen).