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Tree of Life, The
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by Peter Sobczynski

"It Is Real And It Is Spectacular"
5 stars

When the word "epic" is used in reference to a movie these days, it is usually meant to describe a film filled to the brim with insane action sequences, over-the-top special effects or star-studded casts gadding about in exchange for hefty paychecks. Although "The Tree of Life," the latest effort from acclaimed filmmaker Terrence Malick (his first since 2005's "The New World" and only his fifth to date in a career that has spanned nearly 40 years) contains a couple of big-name stars and one extended special effects sequence destined to be talked for years to come, it is an epic of ideas and ambition of a scale rarely seen in the annals of American film. Instead of a straightforward narrative with easily deciphered themes aimed at the broadest audience possible, the film is a haunting and often mystifying cinematic tone poem dealing with the biggest and most basic questions about life and death on a canvas that stretches from the beginning of the universe to mid-1950's Texas and beyond in ways that are both personal and abstract in equal measure. The end result is a one-of-a-kind work that is certain to sharply divide audiences between those who will feel that it is a flat-out masterpiece from the first frame to the last and those who will find it an unbearably pretentious 138-minute-long wank from a director who has managed to convince his acolytes that any movie is inherently profound and meaningful if it is filled with pretty pictures, fuzzy-minded philosophizing and a narrative that could be summed up on a 3X5 card with plenty of leftover space on which to doodle during the boring parts. While I suspect that the majority of the contemporary moviegoing audience will fall into the latter category--assuming that they would even bother to see it in the first place--I am definitely in the former for if there is any movie of late that deserves to be called an instant masterpiece, it is this one, an audacious and powerful work that is aesthetically gorgeous, thematically fascinating and emotionally devastating in equal measure and which not only lives up to the intense expectations that it has generated during its long gestation period, it manages to exceed them.

Disregarding conventional narrative structure right from the start, "The Tree of Life" offers up an impressionistic series of images that sets up the basic underlying philosophical principle--that every facet of life is the subject of a never-ending battle between the harsh and cruel way of nature and the loving and forgiving way of grace--and offers a few brief looks at the life of central character Jack O'Brien from his days as a young boy growing up in a small Texas town in the mid-1950's (where he is played by Hunter McCracken) and in contemporary times (where he is played by Sean Penn) where he is a successful Houston architect still haunted by those long-ago days, particularly by the tragic death of one of his two younger brothers. This goes on for approximately the entire first reel and at this point, Malick goes for broke with an extended sequence that takes viewers back to chronicle nothing less than the dawn of time itself in a series of extraordinary images (for which Malick enlisted the aid of special effects legend Douglas Trumbull as visual consultant) ranging from a nebula expanding in deepest space and cells multiplying to primordial ooze to the brief appearances of a couple of dinosaurs. Although one could theoretically debate its usefulness in regards to the rest of the story, it is a stunning and rapturously beautiful stretch of pure filmmaking and if the rumors that Malick is working on an extended version of the sequence to play as a stand-alone film in IMAX theaters, I for one will be first in line to check it out.

From the infinite, the film settles back into the comparatively mundane, if no less confusing and potentially volatile, existence of the 10-year-old Jack, his younger brothers R.L. (Laramie Eppler) and Steve (Tye Sheridan) and his otherwise unnamed father (Brad Pitt) and mother (Jessica Chastain). It soon becomes clear that Jack's parents are meant to represent the aforementioned struggle between nature and grace for his very existence--his dad, a would-be musician who instead settled for a life as an engineer and whose only outlet for his former artistic dreams come via playing the organ in church, is a stern taskmaster who loves his children but who is nevertheless strict and unyielding with them because of his belief that doing so will properly prepare them for life in the real world while his mother strives to demonstrate that the world can also be filled with beauty and peace for those willing and able to open themselves up to it. As time passes by, Jack and his brothers play and goof around in the neighborhood and begin to get their first intimations of sex (via a piece of lingerie stolen from a neighbor's house), race (a visit to a barbecue shack that offers up virtually to only glimpse of African-Americans in the entire film) and death, both small (a thoughtless bit of childish cruelty involving a frog and some spare fireworks) and large (a death at a local pool that harshly reveals that the seemingly all-knowing and all-perfect adults are, in the end, just ordinary people in the end). Eventually, a sort of battle of wills begins to develop between Jack and his father--although he most likely doesn't quite realize it at that point, Jack is clearly afraid that he will one day grow up to be like his father at his worst moments. Ironically, there are times in which Jack's father seems to have the exact same fear as well but lacks the ability to change behavior that has been ingrained in him since he himself was a child.

Malick himself grew up in Texas in the mid-1950's and also had a younger brother who died at an early age but even if you went into "The Tree of Life" without knowing those details, you would still get the sense that he was working with material this time around that he connected with on a far more personal level than in the past. While his earlier films--"Badlands," "Days of Heaven," "The Thin Red Line" and "The New World"--have all used the eternal conflict of nature vs. grace as their jumping-off points, this is the first time that Malick has deployed them in the service of a story that didn't also have a solid foundation based either in history ("Badlands" was inspired by the deadly rampage of Charles Starkweather in the 1950's and "The New World" offered up an intriguing look at the story of Pocahontas) or literature ("Days of Heaven" was a riff on Henry James' "The Wings of the Dove" while "The Thin Red Line" was an adaptation of James Jones' best-selling novel about the battle of Guadalcanal) that also served as a sort of distancing element to boot. As a result, there is a sense of absolute authenticity to this story that is so palpable throughout that even those who weren't raised at the same time under the same circumstances will nevertheless find themselves taken back to similar moments from their own childhoods, a time when ordinary play could suddenly develop into moments of pure joy or terror depending on the circumstances and when a family dinner could erupt into frightening chaos on the basis of a single word or gesture. It all culminates in a stunning silent final tableau in which all the characters reunite on a desolate beach that presumably is meant to represent the afterlife--while I cannot fully explain what Malick is going for in these finale images and am not even entirely sure that he himself fully knows what is going on as well, I will say that it hits on a perfect end note of grace and that I cannot think of a better way for it to end.

That said, this isn't simply another tale of a poor innocent child being raised by a cruel and heartless father and an angelic mother along the lines of "The Great Santini" and its ilk. Malick is too smart for that and instead provides us with characters that are a little more complex than that and are a little more relatable as a result. Some of the early reviews of the film suggested that the father was little more than an abusive brute but that is not the case. Yes, there are moments when he flies off the handle in a terrifying manner towards both his children and his wife and yes, there are times when his approach to parenting has an unnecessarily harsh edge, such as when he teaches Jack to punch him in the face or simply asks him "Do you love your father?"--the proper answer, of course, being "Yes, sir!" At the same time, it is clear that he does love his wife and children and deep down regrets some of his actions--at one key moment, he even confesses his flaws by admitting "I dishonored it all and didn't notice the glory." For his part, Jack grows to recognize his father not as a god or as a monster but as an ordinary person with ordinary foibles and when he hears his father's aforementioned admission, his response is one that is surprisingly empathic without relying on cheap sentiment or an unlikely burst of forgiveness to move things along. As for the mother, she is largely presented as an ethereal and saint-like creature devoted to balancing out her husband's harshness with unlimited peace, love and devotion (an extended idyll between her and her children while Father is away on business is painted in such blissful terms that it could almost be subtitled "Days of Heaven") but at the same time, there is the sense that she sticks with her husband even through his dark moments because he is able to provide the necessary sense of discipline that she is constitutionally unable to provide herself.

When the films of Terrence Malick are written about or discussed, they are usually done so from the perspective that he is the ultimate star of them and with the possible exception of "Badlands," they are rarely examined from an acting perspective. This is a shame because over the course of his five films, Malick has demonstrated an unusually keen method of working with actors and that is certainly the case here. Although they have often been overlooked because of his adequate looks and personal life, Brad Pitt does have considerable acting chops at his disposal and deploys them here in an alternately touching and frightening performance that is one of the very best things that he has ever done--instead of given us just another variation of the stern taskmaster cliche, he manages to humanize the character in ways that make his actions both scary and strangely understandable given his circumstances. As the mother, newcomer Jessica Chastain faces the challenge of working with a part that has less on-screen dialogue than any lead female role in a major film this side of "The Piano" but she too manages to create an indelible impression that should help supercharge her blossoming career. However, the true star of the film is Hunter McCracken as the young Jack and in a role that is far more complex and nuanced than the type usually given to child actors and it is the highest compliment that I can think of to say that whenever he is on the screen, which is more often than not, there is never the sense that you are seeing any "acting" per se--he instead comes across just as a normal kid, the kind you might have hung around with in your childhood as well. As the older version of Jack, Sean Penn is barely in the finished film--I suspect there was a lot more footage of him that was shot and then banished to the cutting room floor as Malick reshaped things in the editing room--and if he ultimately doesn't make the same kind of impact as his fellow castmates, he does offer a brief and effective sketch of a man who is paradoxically torn between his conflicting childhood memories and his realization that he can never go back to those seemingly simple times again.

To be honest, "The Tree of Life" is probably not the ideal introduction to the cinema of Terrence Malick and those whose have failed to respond to his earlier efforts are unlikely to have some kind of epiphany regarding his genius this time around--there are points in which Malick's predilection for multiple voiceover narrations laid over seemingly related visuals (all gorgeously shot by Emmanuel Lubezki, a clear front-runner for this year's Best Cinematography Oscar) seem to be teetering on the border of self-parody and the lack of a conventional narrative structure will probably send viewers expecting a conventional Brad Pitt drama running for the aisles by the mid-way point. However, for those who are Malick fans or those who still cling to the stubborn belief that cinema can do more than inspire Slurpee cups or video games, this film will come as both a relief and a revelation. Like Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey," one of the very few movies I can think of that it begins to compare to in terms its ambition, scope and a complete refusal to play by the rules of conventional cinema (for those with several hours to spare, the two would make for an incredible double-feature, now that you mention it), this is a film destined to be analyzed and argued over for as long as people are still around to do such things and after today's box-office behemoths have long since been forgotten.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=21235&reviewer=389
originally posted: 06/02/11 23:00:00
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 Festival de Cannes For more in the 2011 Festival de Cannes series, click here.

User Comments

2/22/17 morris campbell majestic and deep NOT 4 everyone though 4 stars
6/04/12 mr.mike I found it much more watchable than "Melancholia". 4 stars
4/05/12 Terrence Malik's mother This picture is so pretentious and so are the critics 2 stars
3/17/12 Quigley One of the most hypnotic films I've ever seen. One of Malick's best. 5 stars
3/02/12 Katherine I adored this film. I felt like I was watching an art museum come to life. Not for most. 5 stars
12/26/11 Man Out Six Bucks Melancholia was so much better. Good acting. Chaotic editing. Needs a story to pull you in 3 stars
12/06/11 jhwallacejr One of the most boring pretentious films I have seen in a long time..... 1 stars
11/11/11 Simon Definitely appreciate what it aspires to be, but Malick just demands too much patience here 3 stars
10/23/11 vickie bowles a big yawn 3 stars
10/18/11 Magic Every bit as majestic as you think it is. Love it or hate it, it has lovely cinematography. 5 stars
8/08/11 rick one of the worst i ever saw 1 stars
6/29/11 Kim Phan Urgg!! Way to artsy for me. And I actually like indpendent films! 2 stars
6/26/11 millersxing Malick's head-swimming aesthetic frustrates as you resist it, but elevates as you surrender 4 stars
6/20/11 Bob Dog I liked Malick's earlier films, I like artsy movies - - but this is pretentious twaddle. 1 stars
6/05/11 Shaun A Fantastically simple and powerful. 5 stars
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  27-May-2011 (PG-13)
  DVD: 11-Oct-2011


  DVD: 11-Oct-2011

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