If you were tuned in the movie scene this past year, chances are you heard something about Terrence Malick’s new film, Tree of Life. Before seeing it myself, I’d heard a plethora of different opinions, from critics and from my friends. Half the audience at Cannes booed, a writer at Slate offered high praise, some of my friends were riveted to the screen for all 130 minutes, others walked out or fell asleep halfway through. I’ve even heard of theaters putting signs outside the showings, warning the public that they won’t get their money back.
With this huge spectrum of reaction—from boredom to confusion to outrage to fascination, what is the casual moviegoer to do? Sure, the sheer spectacle of such a film probably prompts some to go see what all the fuss is about. But what if you’re tempted just to save your time and money for a movie more guaranteed to entertain? As a college student short on change myself, I understand the sentiment. But for the rest of the post, let me persuade you that whether you rent it or netflix it, seeing Tree of Life is really worth it.
In all of his films, Malick consistently combines breathtaking cinematography with soaring classical symphonies. Music is never background noise for Malick; it has more prominence than the bits of dialogue he chooses to include. Tree of Life in particular stands on the shoulders of Mahler, Holst, Smetana and others, successfully pairing their epics with the fleeting details of everyday life like leaves on a tree, feet in a sprinkler and light dancing across the walls of a bedroom.
This visual and musical feast is for sure a treat to our senses, but it also points to something more. By choosing to depict reality as broken but beautiful, mundane but unique, Malick rejects the nihilist’s view of life. When his characters do speak, they often reference ‘glimpsing the glory’. There is an eternal something tucked away in these characters, traces of god-like visages on their otherwise temporal faces. Malick acknowledges that the world is broken, full of conflict and messiness. Yet this film, thanks to its cinematography and choice of music, expresses the tension between being created for glory and grace and falling into the dark nature of the human soul.
Technically, his methods are nearly flawless. Every transition is seamless and meaningful, every character is treated with delicate light. The attention to detail on even the briefest shots of leaves blown off sidewalks is remarkable. The result is a gorgeously accurate depiction of life. Reality for Malick is filled with complications and sometimes brokenness, but it for sure isn’t a gritty or hopeless portrayal. We see glimpses of glory seeping through the characters in nearly every scene.
If you don’t want to take my word for it, check out what some of these reputable reviewers had to say:
Terrence Malick’s mad and magnificent film descends slowly, like some sort of prototypical spaceship: it’s a cosmic-interior epic of vainglorious proportions, a rebuke to realism, a disavowal of irony and comedy, a meditation on memory, and a gasp of horror and awe at the mysterious inevitability of loving, and losing those we love. (full review)
– Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian
Many films diminish us. They cheapen us, masturbate our senses, hammer us with shabby thrills, diminish the value of life. Some few films evoke the wonderment of life’s experience, and those I consider a form of prayer. (full review)
– Roger Ebert
“[It] serves as a reminder of how few contemporary filmmakers engage questions of life and death, God and soul, and risk such questioning without the crutch of an obvious story. It isn’t that these life questions aren’t asked in our movies; they are, if sometimes obliquely. Rather it’s the directness of Mr. Malick’s engagement with them that feels so surprising at this moment, and that goes against the mainstream filmmaking grain.”
– Manohla Dargis, New York Times
Does the Bible tell a story? Do the Upanishads? Does the 13 billion-year history of creation — large or small C, as you prefer — tell a story? Because those are relevant touchstones or reference points for “The Tree of Life,” a massively ambitious work of allegorical and almost experimental cinema that seeks to recapture the lived experience of a 1950s family, after the fashion of a Texas Proust, and connect it to the life of the universe, the nature and/or existence of God, the evolution of life on earth and even the microscopic chemistry and biology of life. (full review)
– Andrew O’Hehir, Salon
The Tree of Life manages to showcase both man’s glory and his inestimable smallness. Life, in the end, is not about us making a mark. It’s about tuning our ears to the symphony of life around us, paying attention to the bigger story, and doing our best to love each other and receive grace in the time we’ve been given. (full review)
– Brett McCracken, Christianity Today