Oscar Profile: The Tree of Life

by Tom Ingram

Genre Not easily categorized
People Terrence Malick w.d.; Brad Pitt; Sean Penn; Jessica Chastain; Alexandre Desplat m.
/10 9

I’m not going to give a plot summary of The Tree of Life. To the extent that such a thing could be written at all, it would be pointless. The film attempts to encompass everything, and that’s not easy to summarize. It lingers for most of its middle hour on a more-or-less continuous narrative of a family in Texas in the fifties—Dwight Swain would be proud—but it includes sequences of the creation and destruction of Earth, the beginning of life, the dinosaurs, and modern day big-city America.

The film’s visuals are astounding. Unlike other big spectacle movies of recent years, Malick hasn’t gone overboard with the CGI and other computer tricks. He uses computers, but they’re mostly to augment the process of traditional special effects work. Douglas Trumbull, who worked on 2001, Blade Runner and other movies, did the special effects for The Tree of Life, and some of the most spectacular shots were apparently done by mixing chemicals, paints, and dyes, and filming the results with camera tricks. The loving care that went into the work shines through and gives us one of the most fresh-looking films in a long time.

And it’s all in service of a supreme existential perspective. There is nothing quite like a movie that looses the cords of Orion before your very eyes. Space dust gradually congeals into planets, and froth on a puddle becomes the first life. The shots are sweeping and magnificent, and at times even disturbing.

The performances were all right, but it hardly matters. It’s clear from the beginning that this is something bigger than any of the leads. This is not a dramatic or narrative movie, and if you go in expecting one, you may well be disappointed. The struggles and resentment within the family exist as a microcosm of the struggle with the concept of God and the vastness of the universe. Shots of their story abruptly cut to shots of a desert, a rainforest, a waterfall, then to a sideways house filled with water, then to seaweed. It sounds funny now, but in the context of the movie, it makes a kind of twisted dream-sense.

The sound contrast throughout the film is high, as I found out while watching it late at night in a full house. I found it unusually hard to hear the actors at times. In this case it doesn’t matter much because the particulars of what they’re saying aren’t important, but an inaudible performance is an inaudible performance.

Brad Pitt’s character being an amateur musician allows for a soundtrack that is simply stunning (incidentally, Pitt’s double during the organ scene apparently began his studies at the same school as me, though presumably several years earlier). There isn’t a whole lot of original music in the film, which is probably why it wasn’t nominated, but we get composers as diverse as Bach, Berlioz, and Kancheli. Several movements of Berlioz’s Requiem are used for the cosmological sections—there is probably no better choice than a polyphonic mass setting for this type of scene.

The Tree of Life is not a movie that’s easy to describe. It has no good elevator pitch, which is why it took so long to get made. But it has to be seen to be believed. It’s a brilliant mind-bending visual and aural collage that is unlike anything we’ve seen before.

Up for:

  • Best Picture
  • Best Director (Malick)
  • Best Cinematography