Terrence Malick is not my favourite director. Most, if not all, of his films are poorly executed visual poems. Tree Of Life however, is certainly one of his better efforts. I picked up this film from a DVD store after hearing about the talent behind the screen. Not Terrence Malick of course, but cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. I went into the film expecting to be overwhelmed by either Malick’s filmmaking or Lubezki’s visuals, but I was pleasantly surprised to see a substantial balance in talent. Both put forward solid efforts, but that does not mean problems don’t arise.
Let’s start off with what the consensus believes is the highlight of Tree Of Life, the cinematography. Emmanuel Lubezki, perfectly transfers Malick’s vision onto the big screen, for better and for worse. Obviously, many things are out of Lubezki’s control, such as the mise en scene and certain imagery, which he manages well for the most part, but some shots are less than perfect. The strange imagery of nature is made striking by all sorts of angles and shots. Reflections and backlights are used in creative ways, that stand out from the rest of the pack. Shots of more unique and previously unfilmed subjects can vary in consistency throughout each one. Framing is an issue with some existential imagery, but overall the inconsistencies are bearable. Tree Of Life is not Lubezki’s best work, but it is anything but a failure, and is another example of why he is one of the greatest cinematographers of the 21st century.
Outside of the cinematography, the editing is a bit choppy, unfortunately. Sometimes you don’t get a decent amount of time to intricately analyse what you’re seeing before it switches to pretentious, completely scene-unaffiliated subjects. The editing luckily never reaches a point where it becomes disorienting, but it gets scarily close. These problems may be caused by a need to shorten the runtime. A new Criterion Collection version of the film has an extra 55 minutes of footage, which may explain why some cuts feel shortened in the theatrical version.
Terrence Malick seems to have toned down his poetic style for Tree Of Life. Two examples are Badlands and Days Of Heaven, which Malick filmed to feel like poems. This film keeps the wide, sweeping scope Malick has been known for, but adds a much more existential feel to it, making it one of his most visually memorable efforts. Whilst Badlands and Days Of Heaven didn’t provide an engrossing plot to back up it’s visuals, this film does, but goes a little overboard.
The hour and a half that makes up the middle of the film, is cement solid. It goes into the family relationships of a boy living in the US countryside. This sounds unadventurous, and it is, but very few films tackle this theme in such an effortless way. Tree Of Life masterfully keeps a focused eye on it’s subjects and is gut-wrenchingly raw with power. The realism of the acting, dialogue, and visuals provide an unforgettable and emotionally resonant experience, that might even hit close to home with many viewers. Pacing is a extremely well balanced part of the film. Not once does the film feel like it is going over or under time. Tree of Life gives a substantial amount of time to developing characters and giving them dramatic, but still realistic, complications for them to face. If only the film’s beginning and finale followed in the grounded footsteps of this middle section.On the cover of the DVD, Malick is called a “visionary director”, which just screams pretentiousness. Tree Of Life has two sections that I like to call ‘The Pretentious Parables of Pretentiousness’. On a scale of self-loving filmography, you have Darren Aronofsky’s mother! at the very top, which barely even hints at it’s alleged “biblical allegory”, and at the bottom you have every directorial debut. Tree Of Life is a hell of a lot closer to mother! There is all this philosophical-sounding talk in ‘The Pretentious Parables of Pretentiousness’, but it’s true philosophical intentions are indiscernible. The strange imagery of nature is nice to look at, but feels pointless, especially compared to the main central story, which has little to no relevance with nature. The plot dedicated to themes of family relationships, is kept relatively distant from these philosophy oriented visuals, making me further wonder why such things are included. Malick has mashed together themes of family and nature, resulting in a bit of a confusion when the end credits roll.
The score is unique to a fault. I’m pretty sure that I’ve never heard a score that includes opera singers as the forefront instrument. It might sound overwhelming to have such harsh vocals so prominent, but what is so amazing about Tree Of Life’s score, is how it constantly refuses to barrage scenes with music. Orchestral opera tracks compliment scenes with no dialogue, and adds the emotion you would feel from listening to such heavenly vocals. The score is another thing, along with the visuals, that makes sitting through ‘The Pretentious Parables of Pretentiousness’, a bit more bearable.