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Greg’s review of Tree of Life

I’ll freely admit that The Tree of Life isn’t for everyone.

An epic story of love, loss and redemption, it’s a dramatically unconventional story directed by cinematic wunderkind Terrence Malick (Badlands, The Thin Red Line, The New World). Malick’s known as an essentially anti-Hollywood filmmaker, the kind of director that avoids traditional story arcs and camera angles for the expressed purpose of making bold, Extreme Cinema.

That kind of vision doesn’t typically lend itself well to big profits at the box office. It might win you a lot of critics over – especially those doling out the Palme D’Or, which The Tree of Life won this year at Cannes – but it won’t rake in the big bucks in comparison to the spectacle-driven madness of Transformers or Harry Potter. Fine, c’est la vie.

When I saw The Tree of Life, numerous folks walked out of the theatre mid-way through the film. There were choruses of guffaws and audible ‘what the hell’ moments. In other words, if you really love the traditional summer movie experience of big explosions and sequels ad infinitum, don’t bother with this film.

But, if you’re looking for something radically different in the junk food culture of summer movies, this is definitely worth giving a try.

At the risk of sounding like a pretentious cinephile, The Tree of Life is essentially an allegory about the nature of existence and the interconnectedness of things. It’s mostly set in flashback to 1950’s Texas, featuring a very ordinary family living out their lives. At the heart of the family is Jack O’Brien, the eldest son of Mrs. O’Brien (Jessica Chastain) and Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt).

The film also features life in 2011, in which Jack (played with deeply restrained passion by Sean Penn) is an architect now intensely unsatisfied with the monotony of his life.

As The Tree of Life plays out, we learn over time that Jack’s sense of frustration with the world is because he’s torn between two sides of his personality: his mother’s kind, empathetic state of grace, and his father’s stern, dog-eat-dog view of nature.

The film also dramatically underscores these competing views on reality with a huge visual display on the birth of the Universe, the evolution of life on Earth and how the contrast between empathy and aggression, love and hate, have been part of the circle of existence for millions of years. In other words, the human story of alternating between war and peace, families divided and unified, is just a small part of a much larger picture.

Obviously, this is weighty stuff. Director Malick essentially uses many characters in the film as allegorical devices and not just as real characters. This can be pretty off-putting to people, as well as Malick’s desire to never film anything in Steadicam.

The film can appropriately draw comparisons to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey for its broad, all-encompassing themes on life and sentience. Yet, unlike the deeply pessimistic vision of Kubrick, Malick seems determined to offer something far more optimistic, emotional and – dare I say it – humanistic in The Tree of Life.

Again, I’m not going to pretend this is an easy film to like. You will either love it or hate it with a passion. There’s no middle ground. However, if you give it a real shot, you’ll find yourself thinking about it for a long time after you’ve left the theatre. It’s a passionate piece of film that’s unlike anything I’ve seen in years.