The Tree of Life
Review of The Tree of Life (2011), dir. Terrence Malick
Photo: © Concorde Filmverleih GmbH / outnow.ch
The Tree of Life attempts to answer an unanswerable question: What is the meaning of life? or possibly: Why does anything exist at all? Unfortunately, giving a definite answer is almost an impossible task to accomplish and perhaps also the reason why the movie does not give an answer to anything at all.
One would expect Terrence Malick’s 2011 American drama, starring the amazing Sean Penn, Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain, to be a breathtaking masterpiece. Unfortunately, the opposite is true. I began watching the movie with high expectations, but as the story unfolded, these turned into overall disappointment and boredom.
The story begins with a quote from the Book of Job assuming a strongly Christian atmosphere, which remains present throughout the whole movie. The middle-aged Sean Penn (who we think must be an architect), living in an arid glassy flat, gets immersed in the memories of his childhood in Texas in the 1950s. He lives in a typically cozy American house with his despotic father (Brad Pitt), who is a failed businessman, a kind, loving and very religious mother (Jessica Chastain), and two younger brothers. At the age of 19, one of his siblings commits suicide in a military service, thus leaving Sean Penn’s character with a throbbing wound and unceasing agonies.
The storyline as such seems to be perfect to make for an interesting plot, which, however, you will expect in vain. The whole movie is a puzzle of memories, confusing moments and some very well-known biblical quotations. Just for the illustration, let me mention a scene in which the grandmother (Fiona Show) comforts the mother of a dead child saying: "The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away, life goes on, you've still got the other two." Not only does it seem to be one of the oldest clichés ever heard, but it also sounds unexpectedly inappropriate and artificial, just as most of the dialogues between the characters. Important truths of life and life-and-death questions asked by young boys make an impression that the screenwriter has never heard any real kids’ conversations.
The movie is trying to avoid mainstream in every possible aspect. The real problem of this piece of art, however, comes with a 17 minutes’ long passage featuring daring shots of hot geysers, the Earth, molecules, bacteria, seas and canyons, planetary movements and finally—dinosaurs. For a while one has no idea whether it is meant to be a part of the movie or a regular Tuesday program on the Discovery Channel. Is the movie trying to show us the creation of the world? Does it refer to Darwinism/Evolutionism? Is it just a clever trick to please the alternative audience? But how does it relate to the story? One can only guess.
To stay on the bright side, I’d like to mention the extraordinary soundtrack by a French film composer Alexandre Desplat. The music is deep, original and melancholic. Just like the movie was supposed to be. The highlight and biggest surprise comes in the beautiful song Vltava, composed by Bedřich Smetana, which left me overwhelmed and goose-skinned. Bravo to that!
The Tree of Life won the Palme d’Or at the 64th Cannes Film Festival last year. The prize suggests that maybe I am too critical or simply that it just wasn’t my cup of tea. Maybe the film critics just picked something experimental, daring and unusual. I am aware of the importance of asking questions, but sometimes it’s necessary to give at least a slight breeze of an answer.