The Tree of Life
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From Terrence Malick, the acclaimed director of such classic films as BADLANDS, DAYS OF HEAVEN and THE THIN RED LINE, THE TREE OF LIFE is the impressionistic story of a Midwestern family in the 1950's. The film follows the life journey of the eldest son, Jack, through the innocence of childhood to his disillusioned adult years as he tries to reconcile a complicated relationship with his father (Brad Pitt). Jack (played as an adult by Sean Penn) finds himself a lost soul in the modern world, seeking answers to the origins and meaning of life while questioning the existence of faith. Through Malick's signature imagery, we see how both brute nature and spiritual grace shape not only our lives as individuals and families, but all life.
An exclusive 30-minute documentary on the making of the film, Exploring The Tree of Life, allows fans to dig even deeper into Malick’s visionary work and his cinematic legacy through interviews with his collaborators and cast members as well as with directors Christopher Nolan and David Fincher who share an appreciation for his work.
Disc 2: DVD
Disc 3: Digital Copy
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So much of Malick's narrative sense asks you to imagine plot points - It begins with mourning a son we've never yet met who has died at nineteen. It suddenly moves to offices of a prosperous architect. You connect him to the oldest son, and eventually realize he's taken in all the lectures of his frustrated failure of a father, and reaped fortune from them. At one point he apologizes for words they had over the phone about the funeral. What were they? You must imagine--perhaps "you always loved him more than me." It's clear the hostility still boils. Also, central to the truth of the story is the way perfectly well-meaning parents can develop toxic relations with one child only because the dynamics are off. Malick is very aware of this.
Days of Heaven is the Malick film where so many of the visual ideas of the film were taking shape. The dramatic use of montage and movement and imagery - with minimum dialogue- are all some of the hallmarks of pure cinema. Here he goes as far as he can,
just sticking with emotional energy and imagery and composing a world of moments the way they would swirl in your head if you were remembering your life.
When I see so many one star reviews from angry film goers, I really sympathize. Very many intelligent film goers remain in a comfortable world where originality, poetic vision, and a type of spiritual overview of life has very little meaning or worth. It's all pretentious, boring nonsense. This movie is one which pushes you out of your comfort zone.
I, for one, am grateful that such a film exists. I am absolutely certain it will lead others toward inspired film making of the future.
But rather than being a blanket tragedy, there is every day joy carefully woven into the story as well. Even the difficult father is a complex character who sometimes shows genuine remorse for the way he treats the boys. The mother models how to forgive and how to find joy in hard circumstances. As other reviewers have said, it’s not your typical movie, but is its own distinct viewing experience that is as rich as it is unique.
The film is not told in a traditional narrative form, and is therefore not an easy movie for some people to follow. If you are having trouble understanding the film, then I would suggest reading the book of Job in which God addresses Job's frustration over his unwarranted suffering by showing him all his creation, including things Job has never seen or heard of (that's a lot of what that 20 minute "cosmos" sequence is all about). But the film is also, I believe, a reflection on the tension between the ethical world of humans (the tree of knowledge of good and evil) and the natural world (the tree of life) in which our ethical efforts cannot in the end stave off the seemingly indifferent power of life itself. At any rate, the effort it takes to unpack the symbols, the visual poetry, is infinitely rewarding.
It is a deeply spiritual film, and I have read that Malick is a Christian (I should note, however, that the level of his commitment to Christianity is unclear-like so many other things about the man), but he also has a serious background in philosophy, having studied with Stanley Cavell at Harvard. He even published a translation of Heidegger's The Essence of Reasons. With that in mind, I see this film as a modern version of the old medieval contemplative tradition of Augustine or Thomas Aquinas. One could only imagine what those two might have produced if they had studied, as Malick has, Heidegger and William James.
I think it is perfectly fair to critique the theology here, but to call this film a "mess," as some critics have, is an admission that the critic hasn't really been paying attention. Malick does not insult our intelligence by explaining things. He is a poet. The best poetry employs images in novel ways in order to shake our consciousness, disturb it, and force it to play with new possibilities of being. In this regard, "The Tree of Life" is a resounding success.