Terrence Malick Considers Big Questions in His Flawed Masterpiece 'Tree of Life'

THE MEANING OF LIFE: The autobiographical story at the heart of Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life anchor the director’s ruminations about God and the universe.

THE MEANING OF LIFE: The autobiographical story at the heart of Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life anchor the director’s ruminations about God and the universe.

The Tree of Life is the impressionistic story of a Midwestern family in the 1950's. The film follows the life journey of the eldest son, ...

Rating: PG-13 for some thematic material

Length: 138 minutes

Released: May 27, 2011 Limited

Cast: Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, Joanna Going, Fiona Shaw, Jackson Hurst

Director: Terrence Malick

Writer: Terrence Malick

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The Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson reportedly once summed up his legendary troubled concept album Smile as a “teenage symphony to God.” Director Terrence Malick (Badlands, Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line)now offers the aging Baby Boomer version in film form. The Tree of Life arrives in multiplexes on a wave of advance buzz highlighting both its profound beauty and its confounding obliqueness; only its obliqueness is somewhat overstated. Which is not to say that it’s easily penetrable: It is clearly an enormously personal film for Malick—its setting, characters, and story bear close parallels to his own early life—and he stretches the limits of his own idiosyncratic cinema language to convey what he’s wrestling with here. Even those (such as this writer) who consider Malick something of a Wilson-like creative savant may not swallow everything he attempts. But the attempt alone is something of a humbling feat.

Slowly, in piecemeal fashion, Malick introduces a family living in bucolic Waco, Texas, in the mid-20th century: stoic engineer father (Brad Pitt), doting mother (Jessica Chastain), oldest son Jack (played for most of the film by pre-teen Hunter McCracken), and two younger brothers. You are given to understand that a profound tragedy strikes the family, and Malick cuts to Jack as a grown man (played by Sean Penn) living in a glass-skyscrapered city, seemingly ruminating on his life, on life itself. Malick not only explores and leaps between these characters and places in time in his customary fashion, through ravishingly beautiful visuals, elliptical edits, and hushed voice-overs, he also takes around 15 minutes at one point to take the story back to the beginning of the universe and bring it forward from there.

Yes, that includes the dinosaurs spotted in some early teasers, and surely Malick’s explicit attempt to link puny mortals like his characters, or us, to the deepest history of life as we know it will baffle and put off many viewers. Gorgeous as the sequence is, it can hardly help but do so. But immediately after this and-the-earth-cooled moment, Malick begins to tell the story of Jack in earnest, through some of the finest work of his career. There are perhaps a half-dozen actual substantive dialogue scenes—in the sense that people exchange words of consequence back and forth to each other—in the entire 138-minute film. Even Malick’s trademark voice-overs are relatively terse. When his characters speak, they’re often inaudible or garbled; when their voices are clear, almost everything is a soliloquy, a confession. Through visual storytelling, Malick relates the story of Jack’s young life: the love of his parents, his growing understanding of the world, his rivalry with his golden-child middle brother (Laramie Eppeler, a ringer for Pitt), his first experiences of death and of tragedy and of sex and sin and shame (the latter three conveyed via a wordless sequence involving a milky purloined slip). Most of all, the film delves into his love of his loving mother and his no less intense relationship with his volatile disciplinarian father.

Pitt’s work as an actor has never quite measured up to his stature as a star, but he finds a groove here, his sour pout telegraphing the disappointment and hurt that helps create a domestic monster. McCracken more than carries his weight: In a very real sense, most of Tree of Life involves watching him silently watch and absorb, and it’s never a letdown. Chastain is luminous, which is all she’s really required to be, and that’s one of the film’s significant faults. Her character, lovely as she is, is almost a caricature of maternal comfort and beatitude, her presence as a parent over and over reduced to running and laughing. The stark binary between the warm, forgiving mother and the harsh, often cruel father isn’t just a problem of hastily sketched characters—it’s woven right into Malick’s film from its very first moments.

Its idiosyncrasies aside, The Tree of Life constitutes an overt attempt to come to terms with a remote, inscrutable, and often brutal authority figure whom you nonetheless believe loves you, or is supposed to. On one level, that figure is Pitt’s father character. On another, it is God. The film’s epigraph is from the Book of Job, and it doesn’t take long to sort out whom all the voice-overs are addressing. The film’s setting isn’t limited to 20th-century Texas because its scope extends far beyond that. In fact, Malick’s reach is so grand here, and his grasp is so great, that it’s almost heartbreaking when he falls short. It’s hard to say what’s more unrealistic, his treatment of dinosaurs or his treatment of the mother character, and along with his usual stunning imagery he falls back on a number of stylistic tics: girls on swings, focusing on shadows, a series of portentous portals, even his preference for filming at “magic hour.”

But Malick comes as close as any filmmaker ever has at getting at something like the ineffable onscreen, and the central story of Jack and his father is so adroitly done that it seems likely it would play well enough anywhere in the world sans subtitles. It’s a flawed masterpiece, but a masterpiece nonetheless, and in a cinematic season where whether or not Thor sucks constitutes a serious discussion, it’s a must-see for anyone with more on his or her mind than popcorn.

© 2011 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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