I typically don’t see or get swept up in the gales of polarizing art films. But few “art” films penetrate the bubble of pop culture quite like The Tree of Life. The top Cannes winner was foamingly anticipated before its release, and has been much pondered, discussed, and critiqued in the weeks since. Some found it overrated, some the second coming of cinema, and some a pretentious pile of camera droppings. I salivated over the film’s prospect simply because Terrence Malick’s previous film, The New World, is one of the most gorgeous, contemplative applications of sound and moving images I’ve ever seen. If Tree of Life was anything close in its offering—and with its broader, more cosmic story, it had the potential to transcend even higher—I knew I would love it.For a film as unorthodox and open to interpretation as Tree of Life, subjectivity in response and opinion is inevitable. There is no conventional plot. Most dialogue is spoken (whispered) in poetic narration. And there are lengthy passages of (seemingly unrelated) visuals that require patience and an open mind. Still, after having heard sundry waves of feedback, I was surprised at how accessible the film was. Once you get beyond the more “galactic,” character-less moments, you have a fairly straightforward story about growing up—and all of the accompanying joy, suffering, confusion, temptation, and redemption therein. Only, that story is told in a more visual, organic style than the typical movie narrative.
I don’t know how to extract the essence of my feelings about The Tree of Life without gushing, without tripping over my words in breathless praise. I could easily laud Malick’s filmmaking genius, or the performances, or the superb use of music (unoriginal though it may be). But I think it would be better, and more honest, to talk about the film in terms of what it did inside of me. That’s where the subjective part comes in, and it’s why many people would strongly disagree with my opinion of the film. But this Tree put down roots deep into my spirit, and its impact on me—both in what it taught me and powerfully reminded me of—has been enormous. I wanted to love it, and I did. But I loved it for reasons I didn’t know to expect. Who knew that it would find its way past my head and my heart? Who knew a film had directions to my soul?
In Part Two, I’ll discuss in depth what The Tree of Life did to me.