For many The Tree of Life was one of the most anticipated films of Cannes 2011. Walking around the sun drenched town on the French south coast, there are numerous posters advertising the movie, and after hoarding into the early morning screening there was a buzz of anticipation, as derrières filled every seat in the house. Oh the disappointment!
For the first 20 mins of the film, the screen is bombarded with a mix of science documentary-esque graphics of the big bang, planets and a variety of nebulas and such forth (Think ‘Steven Hawking’s Universe’, or for UK readers,’Wonders of the Solar System’). We are then treated to scenes of the various landscapes around the world that are comparable to a ‘Discover Australia’ commercial.
These features also re-appear throughout the film, and I suppose the attempt is to illustrate the grand nature of the universe and truly unimaginable distances and time that exists throughout the cosmos. Proving that we truly live in a wondrous and infinitely beautiful existence, which is filled with both glee and and despair, but in which carries an exquisite harmony. Thus marveling and becoming awestruck at the existence, and equally fragile and resilient characteristics of life and nature.
However, with little focus and no real story line introduced, all the sequence provides is a confusing, albeit pretty, experience. In addition to the pictures there is the occasional talk over, where the characters are asking seemingly rhetorical questions regarding spirituality. The sound levels are so badly produced that a lot of the the time their words are indistinguishable, which renders a lot of them as having zero effect.
The story starts in America, with Mrs. O’Brien (Jessica Chastain) receiving a telegram informing her of the death of her second son (second of three); one casualty of many in the Vietnam war. We then then see Mr. O’Brien’s (Brad Pitt) reaction as she calls to tell him the news. This is done with little dialogue as the the scene, and the film as a whole, is accompanied by orchestral and opera music. To be the honest, the sound along with the look of the film are the only redeeming features, (something I will get to later).
Upon being transported back to modern day, we meet Jack O’Brien (the eldest son) played by Sean Penn. The few minutes sequence shows Jack going to work, and for a brief few seconds we get to hear a short conversation he is having with his father on the phone. With the end of this obscure and utterly pointless sequence, we are then treated to another round of graphics and depictions of Earth in its early existence and the evolutionary beginnings of life (at one point we are forced to watch the interaction of two computer generated dinosaurs, which quite frankly ranks highly among the most ludicrous shots I’ve ever seen).
We watch as Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien raise their 3 children, and where Pitt’s character is shown to be a hard line father, installing such harsh discipline that the watcher is inclined to believe it boarders on abuse. Jack, as the eldest, bears the brunt of much of his father’s cruelty. The effect it has on him means his frustrations boil over into low level rebellion – the aggression and meanness he shows ironically likening more to his father’s as time passes on.
Hunter McCracken who plays he younger Jack, is a joy to behold; a face that looks older than his years, and a real mature, solid performance. This main narrative finishes with Mr. O’Brien finding a new job after being dismissed from his previous, and the family being forced to move. As the family drive away, it is also the last moments of our peek into that period of their lives, as we are then pushed back forward to Sean Penn.
Surreal shots follow where the older Jack is moving through a realm of spirituality – he is searching for meaning in his own life by trying to find it from the events of the past. Where the whole point of the look back, is that he has been looking for reasons as to why he is alive, and how did he lose the innocence of youth – a question I felt compelled, patronizingly, to be asking myself.
The graphics and shots of the universe, the Earth, life, and spiritual after realm are put there to give the film a profound influence. What I found was that it made the film disjointed, monotonous, and after the first couple of minutes, down right tedious. The music and the visuals of the film on the other hand, are impressive. The emotiveness and feeling that are heard audibly far outshone any that was intended to come visually.
The camera style and technique was clean and easy on the eye. Whether a film can be lorded for style and technique alone is a question that can legitimately be asked, but for me the most fundamental elements of any film experience are – am I being entertained? Do I feel anything for the characters? Do I leave with any kind of enlightenment or fulfillment. The answers to each of these question is a resounding NO!
The Tree Of Life is so pretentious, and utterly devoid of any sincerity or inducement of any emotion at all (apart from the music) that it cannot be classified as entertaining. Whilst the performances are neither here or there (apart from the aforementioned Hunter McCracken) the film feels like it wasn’t about the characters at all, but how grand of a message it could give. This also impacts on the question of enlightenment, where the message has been put forward infinitely more cleverly and illustrated so much more epicly by the Discovery Channel on numerous occasions.
If I wanted to be educated, and asked thought provoking questions on spirituality, philosophy of life, and my place in the world, I would reach by something where I am not talked down to and which proceeds with a genuine love and fascination for all matters spiritual and scientific, that transcend our own being. The Tree Of Life on the other hand is asking you the questions, and then sitting back and proclaiming “how clever we are for asking you”.
For many, The Tree of Life was one of the most anticipated films of Cannes 2011. For me, it was one of the worst films of Cannes 2011.