Sunday, June 12, 2011


"The Tree of Life" (2011)

Three years in the making from writer/director Terrence Malick ("The Thin Red Line, "The New World") and the winner of the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival, his long-awaited new film "The Tree of Life" will be regarded as the towering cinematic achievement of the year. Although it is not a perfect film by any means.

It's frustrating and maddening, perplexing and challenging, exasperating and mystifying and, finally, it asks tough questions that other filmmakers wouldn't dare approach. It's a manic, impressionistic, metaphysical visual poem contemplating nothing less than mankind's relationship with the universe. Defining pretension and catapulting itself headlong into viewers' minds with all of its glaring flaws, the flashes of brilliance within are hard to ignore. And in a film with such soaring, unconstrained ambition shooting for the stars, taking in the bad to appreciate the good has never been so easy.

The film opens with a meditation on two contrasting sides of life experience: nature and grace. The way of nature sees mostly struggle while the way of grace embraces love. This is explained to us in a whispered voiceover from Jessica Chastain who plays Mrs. O'Brien representing grace. Speaking of whispered voiceovers, get comfortable with these because the movie is fueled by them giving us each character's individual thoughts. Mr. O'Brien embodies nature and is played in a career-topping performance from Brad Pitt as the unrelenting, powerful and fierce disciplinarian father. The parents of this suburban Texas 1950s family are named Mr. and Mrs. O'Brien and are addressed by their children as Mother and Father. That's just the way it was.

The heart of the story--or what there is of one--lies in this family, and a hefty midsection focusing on it hits a home run. Long summer days idly pass by as Mother exudes forgiveness and kindness onto her boys as Father demands control and respect, especially from his oldest son Jack (Hunter McCracken) who bears the burden of his father's own inner turmoil. A hard shell and heavy fist cannot hide the vulnerability lying within. These scenes of summer arrive to us through the memory of Jack reflecting back on his childhood as a grown man (played by Sean Penn). In the present day he's injured and has inherited his father's anger to create a somber figure surrounded by the steel and glass of an office building.

The first thing you'll notice about "The Tree of Life" is the eccentric and fascinating way it is shot from cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. Using a handheld camera, he graciously swoops in and out of the action much like how he did in "Children of Men." It resembles a fever dream or, more accurately, an altered state of perception--seeing life in a completely different scope. It also astoundingly evokes the feel of faded and fragmented memories of which the portrait of the 1950s family is made up. Some moments are potent and witnessed in full while others are flashes, skewed and altered moments that flicker by.

But presenting consciousness and inner monologue isn't Malick's only goal with this film. He doesn't stop there and shows us the birth and expansion of the universe in sequences with God-like and awe-inspiring visuals set to a playlist of classical music. We're shown vast planetary expanses all the way down to microscopic organisms and evolving species with everything in between like gorgeous landscapes, mountains and sparkling waterfalls. With such, there come dinosaurs--yes, dinosaurs. So, we all came from the Big Bang millions of years ago, and after all this progress here we are today. And it begs the question, as Malick so ethereally puts, what now?

At its most basic, "The Tree of Life" marks the most impassioned philosophical and overtly religious mainstream film in recent memory. Referring back to the two contrasting modes of viewing human existence--that of nature or grace--Malick is optimistic and wishes for a return to grace, a promise of peace and understanding that spreads beyond the bounds of the universe. In such, he presents a version of the afterlife that is an expanse of smooth sand and fresh beach water bathed in warm sunlight with a beautiful bright sky.

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