The first time I watched The Tree of Life I did not like it. I thought it was a very pretty 2 hour+ meditation video – not a film. People told me the second time was better and I really should re-watch. For some reason I resisted for quite some time…
This week I finally relented and watched it again. Read my thoughts on revisiting and reassessing the film after the jump. Warning: this blog post contains spoilers for The Tree of Life.
The First Watch
The first time I saw this film I had so many preconceived notions and expectations. It had won the Palme d’Or, sold out festival sessions world-over, and boy did it have the critics in a buzz. People had gone on and on about how it wasn’t a “true narrative” film and how innovative it was. I read stories of people walking out of the film and demanding refund; and heard my friends laughing about “those freaking random dinosaurs”. I’m not sure what I expected, but I did expect it to be something special.
To say I was surprised was an understatement. I found the film to be a combination of: absolutely stunning visuals, strong religious statements & imagery, a beautiful family story, and a whole lot of artistic fluff. The beautiful family story and the heart of the film was surrounded by so much other noise that I found the film almost unbearable. At around the 30minute mark when the scenes of natural phenomena started up, I believe I audibly groaned. I found it hard to come back from that. Every time the film left the family and went down the nature/earth imagery path, it completely lost me and drew me right out of the film. I left the cinema feeling quite perplexed and a little frustrated with what I had seen.
Re-watching & Reassessing
I was finally inspired to re-watch the film after Sydney film reviewer Andrew Buckle published a post, “Expectations and Repeat Viewings“. Like him, I think expectations have clouded experiences, and I have often enjoyed films I knew absolutely nothing about prior to seeing them more than films I had been anticipating. So with an open mind I re-watched The Tree of Life twice (over a 24 hour period) -once with distractions and once without.
I can say straight away that I enjoyed the film on the 2nd and 3rd viewing – I did not enjoy it the first time. I think they key difference is I knew what I was in for but was very open-minded about the film, and didn’t expect anything from it. I knew the dinosaurs and slightly more arty bits were coming, and I just rode them out instead of rolling my eyes at them. The aspects that annoyed me the first time paled in comparison to the strength of the family narrative at the heart of the film – for me this is the real strength of the film and is what makes it worth watching.
I noticed the sound much more upon re-watching. It helped that I had DJ quality headphones on; but boy ever single sound, every song, every rustle of a leaf was deliberate and so very beautiful. It was the quality of the sound and score that kept me in the film during the shots/scenes showing nature & natural phenomena – I think I understand that Malick was showing us the beauty and sheer size of the earth and I felt I was supposed to relate that to my life or how I fit in the grand picture. I still don’t know if that was needed or how I really feel about it. However, I appreciated it this time because the sound and score just made it an absolute joy to watch – a feast for the eyes and the ears.
Visually this film is no less impressive the second and third go round. The lighting in this film is especially impressive. It is quite obvious that natural lighting was used in many of the scenes – they felt so soft and delicate. Emmanuel Lubezki was awarded the American Society of Cinematographers award for ‘Outstanding Achievement in Cinematography’ and is nominated for an Oscar for his brilliant work in this film. He deserves all praise he is getting – take what you want away from the story/themes in this film, but no one can deny that is exquisitely shot and absolutely amazing to see on the big screen.
The second and third viewing of this film cemented my belief that Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastian have received Oscar nominations for the wrong films (Pitt for Moneyball and Chastain for The Help). Both deliver incredibly strong performances which anchor the family at the heart of the film. Pitt is heart-breaking as the father, who feels like he is a failure at life. He doesn’t want the same for his family and as a result is a real task-master. The pressure and stress he places on the eldest son is just devastating to watch – how will he ever live up to his father’s expectations? Chastain is simply stunning and really embodies the qualities of an earth-mother – we feel nothing but pure love from her. The child actors are also extraordinary and so very natural. Hunter McCraken must be given immense praise for his portrayal of the rather complex eldest son. He is a joy to watch.
Finally some thoughts on the themes of the film. While I found the family’s story very impressive the first viewing, I had trouble connecting it to the whole film and understanding what the film was telling me. This time around I still wasn’t entirely sure what I was supposed to feel or what the film was telling me, but it mattered less. I think The Tree of Life is the type of film which people view many ways and take away different things. For me the key thing I took away was the importance of family and appreciating those around you. Life is short and you just don’t know what’s around the corner. You are but a speck on the fabric of the earth, and it’s up to you to make something of your time. Is that what Malick wanted me to feel? Who knows really!
The first time around I gave this film a 1.5/5 – after these re-watches I think it would have to be at least a 3.5 or perhaps a 4. I still have some issues with natural vistas and why they were needed; and I also found the religious tone to be a bit much at times. However, overall it is a truly unique film and one that was well worth the revisit. It made me think and reflect on life – only a rare film can do that for me.
What did you think of The Tree of Life? If you’ve re-watched it, was your experience different the second time around? Let me know in the comments.