THE TREE OF LIFE (Dir. Terrence Malick, 2011)
This is sure to be the most debated film of the year.
Just a cursory glance at internet message boards shows that while some people are labeling it “pretentious crap,” another thread of folks are calling it “one of the best movies ever.”
Consider me in the latter camp.
For his first film since THE NEW WORLD in 2005, the none-too-prolific Terrace Malick (BADLANDS, THE THIN RED LINE) has made a non-linear epic of incredible photography, lavish reconstructions of astrological history, and classical music.
It’s an overwhelming work that obviously a lot of people simply won’t get. I myself am still trying to piece it together, but I think I get it. I think.
Through beautifully fleeting imagery, we follow Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain as the parents of three sons in 1950s Waco, Texas. One of the sons dies, the cause of which is never explained, and the family is in mourning with Chastain asking the Heavens: “Lord, why? Where were you?”
Malick attempts to answer that question by going back to the beginning of time in a mesmerizing series of shots of thick engulfing clouds, glowing globules of every color, shining light, fire, flowing lava, etc.
History comes alive via CGI, and we even get to spend a little time with a few dinosaurs.
The visual thrust of all of this is stupefying; it’s like Malick is actually trying to capture God on film.
I’m really not sure if he succeeded, but that a film maker would try so hard and in some flashing moments appear to get so close is amazing to behold.
The timeline catches up with the ‘50s family again, as we see the boy who died being born. A strict disciplinarian, Pitt practices tough love on his boys (Hunter McCraken, Laramie Eppler, and Tye Seridan) while Chastain offers nothing but unconditional motherly love.
The vivid cinematography by four-time Oscar nominee Emmanuel Lubezki is astounding. Whether it’s exploiting the lush splendor of nature or zeroing in on the characters in emotional despair, the camera is always moving, exploring the space of every frame.
Close-ups are handled in a manner I haven’t seen in a film in ages. Even when the boys join a roving group of trouble making pre-teens, a feeling of isolation around McCracken is felt. His misguided desire to fit in with the window breaking, animal abusing brats is captured in the restless energy of the camerawork.
As the troubled eldest son Jack, McCracken is arguably the protagonist. His angry brow dominates the screen as he grows to resent his father. It’s a spare yet piercing performance – a noteworthy film debut.
An older version of Jack is played by Sean Penn, a businessman in the modern world still suffering over the loss of his brother and estranged relationship with his father. Penn’s part is one of the film’s only weaknesses. Penn, who gets more grizzled looking every movie he makes, mainly broods with his presence threatening to stop the film’s immersive flow.
As the last third becomes engulfed in surrealism, Penn is seen, suited up, wandering around a desert landscape. These images are pretty, but ultimately superfluous.
Many moviegoers (and critics) are going to be baffled by THE TREE OF LIFE. It’s a challenging and dense work that comes off at times like STAND BY ME filtered through the Kubrickian kaleidoscope of the last ten minutes of 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY.
To me it’s not just a massive breath of fresh air during this sequel saturated summer, it’s a near masterpiece about life, death, the universe and everything.
In other words, here’s the year’s first major contender for Best Picture at the next Academy Awards.