So your grandfather sits down and tells you a story. It's an old one - you've heard it before. Your mother told you it, sat you down and for twenty minutes fully regaled you with all of the details and nuances of the tale. Your grandfather takes two and a half hours with it.
This is the Tree of Life, a lush and vivid slideshow of visuals, overlaid with beautiful music. From time to time Jessica Chastain’s character will whisper something vaguely philosophical in our ear, but her words are not important. This is a meditative experience, luring you into a trance-like state as a variety of beautifully realised visual metaphors told a separate story that unfolded mainly off-screen.
Then director and “writer” Terence Malik makes the decision to include a story in the middle of all these lovely images. And this is a project that, from the start, just screams “no writers allowed”, as if Malik had pencilled it onto a piece of paper and stuck it to the door of the development office. This is a place for artistes and auteurs, which perhaps makes what I have to say about this movie so surprising.
This is like Transformers 3. If you like that kinda thing, you’ll enjoy it. If not, then I can’t really call it a good movie, even if it does sit at the other extreme of the spectrum. It’s not as if I am particularly averse to pretention: this movie is at it’s strongest when it lapses into non-linear storytelling and elaborate visual metaphors. When we get to see the boy growing up, starting from his birth, things venture into meandering melodrama.
Sure, it still uses visual metaphors to convey it’s themes and emotional heart, and the execution does bring a weight to proceedings. At times, you can feel the strain that our main character feels through his relationship with his father. In the most part, unfortunately, the lingering style of the direction and the underwriting really count against what is already quite an uninteresting drama. It seems to pretend it’s more important than it is, too, and overall just drags. Towards the end of the latter part of the more realistic, linear story you really end up feeling fed up. Then Malik turns on the weird again, and won me back over.
The highlight, for me, was the film’s brilliant music. It borrows heavily from the classical world, but not without good reason. Perhaps without the glorious music, much of this movie would have seemed false, an attempt to pander to the emotions. From a bit of Brahm to Bach’s Toccata and Fuge, a personal favourite, there’s a lot here to love with your ears.
Thematically, the film wants to be about faith and by extension life and death, but it meanders far too much. Water is the central metaphor as a bringer of life, an agent of death and (as evidenced by baptism) a vehicle of faith. It’s overextended hugely, to the point where I kinda gave up working out all of it’s different uses and connotations. Herein lies the movie’s biggest problem: it’s length. It dilutes the whole thing, the themes and emotions. Everything is so convoluted that it feels like any pleasure that can be gained from decoding it’s elaborate repetition is not worth the bother.
This movie was at times lovely on the eye, and interesting, and thought provoking; it features a great cast and a gorgeous soundtrack. Yet, were you to ask me to sum it up in three words: long, slow, repetitious. This movie makes too many mistakes and is too into itself to not fully embrace the pretention of the whole thing. Whilst I don’t regret seeing it, I can’t recommend it either.
So yeah: count me stumped.