Life begins with nothingness.
So does my personal experience in watching the film. Armed with overwhelming warning, expectation, hope and other kind of buoyant adjectives that only propel further confusion, I decided to enter the darkened cinema hall with no prior thoughts nor set of presumption.
The only thing we can hold true is the title itself: The Tree of Life.
Seemingly poetic, the words that make the title unveil themselves through a series of imagery that would rival the best National Geographic photography works ever invented. We may be tempted to describe the whole film as a visual poetry. There are those, I am sure, that prefer to describe the entire film as a masturbation work of an artist under bout influence. There is a possibility that one treats the film as an artistic exhibition worth being displayed in a world-class art gallery, but not cinema.
These are examples of a few labels that may be applied to the film. These labels comprise the film. Just like life itself.
In fact, if life is a film, then it might as well be The Tree of Life.
Especially when life is filled with curiosity to explore what constitutes as mankind. Through the whisper of voice overs, the striking visual galore and microscopic close-up scenes, Terrence Malick observes life from the eyes of a child who simply wants to understand his own being.
As a boy like any other boy, he carries equal influence of being raised by a set of parents, namely Mother (Jessica Chastain) and Father (Brad Pitt).
As a boy like any other child, he carries within himself eternal attempt to balance the contrasting teachings from both parents.
As a boy like any other beings on earth, he lets nature guide his action, sometimes at the cost of his wonderment of doing things he does not wish to do in the first place.
The internal struggle of human being, something Malick has never grown tired of exploring in the past four decades, is given a larger-than-life proportion in this canvas. Alexandre Desplat’s operatic score enhances the ethereal beauty of Emmanuel Lubezki’s mesmerizing cinematography that is derived from Jack Fisk’s production design. Mark Yoshikawa orchestrates the film with various paces of editing that keep one audience enthralled, so much so that he barely moved an inch in the first hour.
Me. It should be you.
But like life, to each his own cinema-going experience. In short, like life itself, we may perceive things differently, because as the Brad Pitt character says, “Subjective is something that is true to you. Can’t challenge it to anybody, because it is coming from you.” Something like that.
Thus, watching The Tree of Life is akin to how we behave towards things in our surrounding. For every one hooked, shuddered and cried, there are others who choose to walk out. For every one that defies and denies the film worthy of entrance fee, there are those who embrace this as the film that can propel the function of cinema as a place to experience visual treat.
If you choose the latter, then you should know that the treat comes at the cost of Malick’s venture in finding God. More than just using Bible quotes and the endless images of outer space, ancient times, and other-worldly shots, the director ushers us to discover ourselves through our relationships with parents, sibling, people, and nature. Being a keen observer, he leads characters to scarcely sparse dialogue, making each line quote-worthy. The lines eventually immerse in our sense, and we begin to surrender.
Note that it was not an easy give-in process. You don’t get any spoon-fed linear narrative here. The moment you decide to stay after the first 20 minutes, mind-blowing images like how one usually describes the experience taking chemical drugs continue to bombard and leave us perplexed. Slight conventional drama follows, allowing us to take a breath while trying to connect the dots of what we see earlier. Before we may or may not succeed in doing such, another arrays of pictures set in.
“You have to be the master of your own life,” again, the Father character said. It is a continuous process that one shall undertake to make the life goes on living. Understanding the film is another continuous process one shall take to complement the task above.
Do I understand the film? I don’t. Do I “get” it? Hardly.
Do I understand life? I don’t. Do I “get” where life is headed? Hardly.
In the end, after the house light is lit up and end credit rolls, we may return to nothingness. But this time, there’s an undeniable mark within us that we are already exposed to one’s attempt to uncover life and humankind in a masterpiece of filmmaking.
Let The Tree of Life grow in us.
Let it be a start to understand life.
(Images are taken from the digital booklet of The Tree of Life original motion picture soundtrack. Solely used for personal purpose.)