Sunday, July 3, 2011

Review: The Tree of Life

The term for today's review is Kubrick Syndrome. This is the term for when you leave a theater and think 'Wow, that was incredible. What happened?' Yes, The Tree of Life is a unique and visionary film, and quite a good one at that. But it is oftentimes deliberately obtuse, which is going to scare off more than a few viewers.

The story is concerned with a family who has just suffered through a horrifying tragedy (to say what would be telling) and seem to be wondering what it all means. The film seems to want to answer them, and spends most of the rest of it's plot, such as it is, retelling most of their respective lives.

I'm not going to beat around the bush, this is a weird film. To call it nonlinear would be like calling Total Recall a little bloody and it's full of odd moments. After revealing the tragedy to the audience, the film takes a 20 minute digression into the origins of the universe and the planet, and then leaps back into the story of the family.

The cinematography is easily the highlight of the film, at once shaky and unsure (like the characters) and sweeping and grand. Long pans, circling rooms and characters play into the story and message, sometimes obviously, sometimes subtly. The CGI is something to behold, as is the incredible old age makeup used on Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain.

The acting is all quite good, despite the fact that most of the film lacks dialogue, the story being told through sparse conversation, visuals and voiceover. Brad Pitt is the standout, keeping his character fully formed and sympathetic, but Hunter McCraken does an excellent job as one of the kids.

The writing is good, what little of it there is. Of course I'd love to see the screenplay, because so much of it comes off as just odd. I get, for the most part, what he's driving at (not gonna say, don't want to bias my readers) but a lot of it just comes out of nowhere. You'll see what I mean. It's also worth nothing that while the trailers skip over a lot of it, the film can veer into some unpleasant territory, especially for a PG-13.

It feels like a deeply personal film, with a mixture of meditations on loss, anger and religion all tucked into it's narrative. Of course as Glen or Glenda taught us 60 years ago, just because a film is personal to the director, doesn't mean it's good, but in this case it works, adding an extra level of depth to an already deep film.

It's got more than it's shares of flaws, most notably that it's LONG and it feels like it. I know, I know, a lot of good movies are long, but a good one will never FEEL long. The sheer level of oddity and directorial quirks put into this film make it feel obtuse to even the most experienced cinemagoer, even as it's hitting you over the head with it's point. All of this makes it feel more than a little overindulgent, as there are several scenes that could easily have been excised without affecting the plot too much.

This is going to be a polarizing film. Hell it already was, as it both was booed at the Cannes film festival, and won it, so there are going to be people who adore this film fiercely and who loathe it with a passion. And while it may not appeal to everyone, I'm firmly on the positive side, and if you think you can like it, you should definitely see it. Here's a good barometer: You like 2001: A Space Odyssey? If so, there's a good chance you'll be very fond of The Tree of Life.

Elessar is a 21 year old Alaskan born cinephile and he would like to congratulate himself on referencing both an Ed Wood film and a Stanley Kubrick film in the same review.

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