Don’t Believe the Naysaying Critics on ‘Tree of Life’

It’s a beautiful, haunting, hallucinatory film with unforgettable images accompanied by a transcendent musical score

Last Updated: July 22, 2011 @ 3:16 PM

There have been a lot of negative reviews and talk about "Tree of Life."  Don’t believe it!   This is a film you must not miss. I want you to view this film with an open mind, and I am sure you will soon be reflecting upon your own life experience on earth.

I found "Tree of Life" to be a beautiful, haunting, hallucinatory film with unforgettable images accompanied by a transcendent musical score. I was captivated by its dazzling prologue, which included scenes of vast and wondrous natural elements:  giant galactic swirls of colored cosmic dust; raging volcanoes. 

There are also huge swaths of the earth’s surface, including tropical forests (complete with dinosaurs to give the environment a prehistoric legacy), desert land and massive waterfalls. Further, to its benefit, the film has a central human focus on a family — Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien and their three young sons in suburban Texas in the '50s.

Writer/director Terrence Malick has clearly been influenced by Stanley Kubrick’s 2001, which boasts a myriad of interplanetary and cosmic images. In "Tree of Life," however, I see these images not as sign posts where man is traveling into outer space but as reminders of vast and immense forces at play. 

Malick shifts to the other end of the spectrum: a small American neighborhood where the human forces of love, jealousy, rage, father hatred, mother love, sibling rivalry and tragedy (one son dies) emanate from a family lorded over by an overbearing, insecure and aloof father.

O’Brien is played by a deglamorized Brad Pitt in a powerful performance. At one point, O’Brien warns his eldest son Jack not to call him “Dad,” but the more proper “Father” in order to prepare him for the tough authoritarian post-war world that he (O’Brien) must work in.  

I strongly believe that "Tree of Life" is Malick’s most experimental film thus far, boldly showing a European flair and influence. First of all, this work conjures up Ingmar Berman’s fascination with the beauty and power of mothers. With her striking red hair and pale skin, Mrs. O’Brien gracefully, lovingly and confidently interacts with her sons, fully in sync with her family and the natural environs. Secondly, Malick’s lush imagery (shot by his cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki) is reminiscent of the dazzling visuals in the films of Nicolas Roeg (who began his career as a cinematographer), such as "Walkabout" and "Don’t Look Now."  

Like Roeg, Malick uses elliptical editing (for example, scenes of the O’Brien home life, as well as the boys and their friends playing in the brush or by the river), in addition to cross cutting (shots of young Jack intercut with Jack as a middle-aged man, grim and serious in an unnamed city with soaring skyscrapers). I would argue that these editing constructs challenge viewers to expand their perceptive capacities as they experience a complex multi-layered narrative. 

Malick’s balance of grand scale and the personal come together in his grand finale conclusion, as all of the film’s characters mingle on a beach, ocean waves swirling at their feet. This ideal lyrical landscape where nature and humanity interact implies an afterlife where past, present and future gracefully merge. I compliment Malick on his ambitious and rich vision. 

 

Susan Barber, Ph.D, is an associate professor of film studies at the Loyola Marymount University School of Film and Television. She is an expert on Australian and American Cinema. Her book, "Visions of Australia: the Film Revival" is due out in 2012.