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Tree of Life This work is considered exceptional by our editorial staff.

Hm, explain the plot to “Tree of Life”. That can’t be too hard. A girl (Jessica Chastain from “The Help”) grows up to marry Brad Pitt in the fifties, but when he becomes unsatisfied with the choices he’s made life becomes difficult and also nature and grace… wait, that’s not the story. Um… a boy deals with growing up while also living up to the standards of his father and something about the loss of innocence…. No, that’s not it either. Uh, Jack, played by Sean Penn (I Am Sam) is a man with a high paying job, a wife, and a seemingly normal life until we visit him on the day he’s mourning over his brother many years after his initial death. Therefore he spends the movie looking over his own life and the universe itself. Then we cut to space… and then dinosaurs and…um…art.

Make sense now? No? Well, I’m going to talk about it anyway.

Anyone who has seen this movie usually has either one of two responses: “Tree of Life is brilliant! It deserved every single Oscar it was nominated for!” or “…What just happened? Seriously?! There goes the Academy again, picking the easy one. That had to me the most confusing, pretentious waste of time ever committed to celluloid. Screw this man, I’m going to see “Transformers”.” So which stance is true? It is a new and innovated fresh air of cinema or pretentious film student level schlock? Well, it’s both and it’s neither.

To elaborate on what I mean let me tell you about when I saw the trailer for “War Horse”. I saw the horse trot across giant fields in front of the unusually colorful skies with sweeping orchestra behind it and said to myself “This is Pretty Shots: The Movie.” I was wrong about that statement, not only because I give War Horse bit more credit than that but THIS is “Pretty Shots: The Movie”. You can pause at practically any part and automatically use it as your newest screensaver. I’ve never been fond of those art films that become exclusively style over substance. The kind that people obviously put thought into the look and symbolism of it but by the end you can’t really explain what the heck it was about. The kind that when critics pan it the director argues back “They just didn’t get it.” There are infinite examples of those kinds of movies and I’d name some, but you’ve most likely never heard of any of them. There’s a reason. Unless the images are used to progress the story, like most early Christopher Nolan films, or it becomes such a pure descent into a deranged psyche that it turns itself into an LSD trip like “Eraserhead” the audience can’t gain anything from watching something they can’t understand.

However, unlike those movies most of the shots in “Tree of Life” have a point. The images we see are already well engraved in our minds: the Big Bang, the creation of cells, dinosaurs, birth, childhood, and, essentially, life itself. It goes through the motions of what we already know to ask where it all leads to. Needless to say this style isn’t what we’re used to. But despite that it strangely feels familiar. Even if you didn’t grow up in the time period it depicts there are parts in our minds instinctively grasp onto and recognize what’s there. Playing with neighborhood kids until after dark, fights with our parents, swimming at the local pool, the traditional talk of being a man, these are moments in life we remember and think about when we consider death. We’re not meant to follow a character, merely glance into their lives. We only have distant voices as guides us are wandering glances from one place to the next.

This is why it’s slightly off-putting when we start to focus on Jack’s young character. I never thought I’d say this in a review, but this doesn’t need characters with depth. We’re supposed to go through this character’s life, and we go through all the stages just fine until his boyhood, and it’s good for a while, but then we’re just kind of meandering around the fifties until it realizes it’s out of time and skips to the end.

Admittedly it’s not completely devoid of pretentious moments. I’m certain they mean something but one can’t help but scratch their head at them. The part where the kid swims through the door probably means something since it’s on the cover and all but I don’t get it. There must be a reason why they included a third brother who has most of his hair shaved off but I think nothing would have changed if he was cut out of the movie. It’s like I’m totally on board with the direction this is going, and then it throws in an evil clown plunging into a dunk tank and I’m lost. The only time it becomes obvious is in the religious symbolism. There are a lot of churches, and near the end there is a beach depiction of the character’s heaven, and if you REALLY wanted to stretch it one could argue the whole movie is God watching over these characters, but it’s one of those films where it’s only there if you look at it like that. And that’s the original intent that usually gets lost in these kinds of films, that the strangeness is supposed to provoke a different reaction from rather than confuse the ever living brains out of each viewer.

In conclusion, while “Tree of Life” has an artsy style and strange moments that prevents me from recommending it to everyone, that doesn’t stop it from being an amazing achievement on many levels. Though I think the movie would be more complete if we saw more of the main character’s history since it’s not exactly the tree of life if we’re missing a big part of it. Though I guess calling it “The Shrub of Life” won’t get it any Oscar nods. Still, I’m glad a movie like this is getting some kind of notice.

I give it three (but very close to three and a half) pretty visuals out of four.




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