Review: The Tree of Life

It’s hard to miss the controversy surrounding this film, with topical debates about what the film is actually about (see our previous article here).  A short synopsis to start this review is quite strenuous to come up with. From the onset, it is a film about a young boy growing up in the 1950’s with two younger siblings and a very conflicted father played by Brad Pitt. Jump to the present day of a shining Chicago, and Sean Penn is this young boy who reflects on his past and his relationship with his father, mother and two younger siblings (particularly the older of the two).  

First things first: don’t leave your brain at the door. The start of The Tree of Life happens quite fast, but then after the death of a character – which is implied rather than explicitly shown – the pace slows down and you might feel your eyes drooping. These shots shown are more of a pretty slideshow of galaxies and planets which, as colourful and visually stunning they may be, the relevance isn’t clear and would fit much better into an awe-inspiring science-fiction epic. This goes on for about ten minutes with a few whispers of ‘brother’, ‘mother’ and the like reminding you that the characters you saw before weren’t just part of a short introduction to forget.

It becomes apparent from these shots of the universe that what we are watching is presumably the start of the Earth’s existence – the Big Bang. You may want to walk out of the cinema here, but what follows is a scene that is reminiscent of the BBC’s Walking With Dinosaurs: a few short scenes of dinosaurs in a prehistoric Earth, fighting for survival and possibly hinting that life goes on. Quite fascinating and brilliant CGI, but again there fails to be any relevance to the scenes except for a very brief history of the Earth – which soon enough throws us back to the 1950’s.

Without a doubt the film is beautifully shot, and is particularly colourful to contrast sharply with the fairly dull house they live in, with hues of musty greens and browns. The digital quality of the film is breathtaking, where you can see every freckle of each face and the folds of skin in a hand. But unless you appreciate the craft of the filmmaking and the art in every shot, then this film isn’t for you and the artistry will go over your head.

Director Terrence Malick has taken care with the film’s look and cinematography, with his 2005 film The New World winning an abundance of awards. With this in mind, the premise of the film starts to become a little more clear. Each director has their own style – you can easily tell a Quentin Tarintino film from a Michael Bay one. However, it is unclear if Malick is being clever and showing where future cinema could go or whether he is being incredibly pretentious.

It will be interesting to see if it will be nominated for any BAFTA or Academy Awards when the season comes around. Perhaps the film is like The Usual Suspects, which was labelled ‘too clever for Hollywood’ upon its release. It could certainly make the awards just that little more controversial. This film does rely on Brad Pitt’s credibility and fame to reel in the audiences, but it is worth noting that he did actually co-produce it too, so maybe he knows something about the film that we don’t. Nonetheless, his role as an internally conflicted 1950’s father who needs anger management, is believable, realistic and one of the best parts of the film. You would fear him if he was your own father and in the scenes that he isn’t in, the film does expose a weakness as their strongest actor isn’t there to support the rest of the cast. Pitt has put the days of Troy and other brain-dead blockbusters behind him and is now fully integrated in the serious film-acting business.

The Tree of Life appears to have a ‘Marmite effect’ on both audiences and critics alike: some saying it’s the best film they have ever seen, to others insisting it was one of the worst ever created. One of the biggest topical debates and issues with the film is what it’s about. But do you really want to watch a film and come out of the cinema trying to piece together what exactly happened and wonder what on earth you just watched? Is the ending an interpretation of heaven? There is no quarrel with thinking about the film after you’ve left, but feeling disappointed after watching a film that was dragged out to over two hours with very little happening? It’s up to you to come to your own conclusions. This film is about personal taste and one which you cannot take all of the critics word for. You will either love it, hate it, or be neutral and probably not watch it again for a long time. Go and watch it for yourself to decide, and don’t forget to let us know in the comment box below.

The Tree of Life is out in cinemas nationwide and will be released on DVD and Blu-Ray later this year.

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