Tuesday, June 14, 2011


Terrence Malick is a director/writer whose films are not for everybody; his fragmented, non-linear style often rejects any coherent plot, and serves instead as some sort of opus to the world. In THE TREE OF LIFE, Malick not only stays consistent with his beautiful photography, minimal dialogue, and endless philosophical narration, he takes it to whole new level.

THE TREE OF LIFE opens with a quote from The Book of Job, and then cuts to a mysterious wave of light (the first of many appearances). Things then cut to 1950’s Waco, Texas, when Mrs. O’Brien (Jessica Chastain) receives a telegram reporting the death of her 19 year old son. Fast forward to modern day, when Jack O’Brien (Sean Penn) is moving blindly through life, still numb from the loss of his brother. Jack begins reminiscing of his life growing up. The film then rewinds in a major way, taking the timeline right back to the Big Bang, showing the formation and the cooling of the Earth, the (painfully) slow formation of amoebas, and eventual coming of the dinosaurs. After two dinosaurs have a brief encounter (this is really in the film), things cut back to 1950 as Jack remembers his struggles with his near-abusive and strict father Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt). Jack remembers Dad as being strict and scary, while Mom is the passive one. Things eventually end with a glimpse of a remarkable-looking afterlife, as adult Jack is reunited with his brother and family.

So there is no real story here; the lack of which can and will send many viewers to the exit doors 20 minutes in. There is no place to go, nothing to achieve, no real defined endgame. While that may frustrate the majority of viewers, it becomes clear that this is a film that cannot be taken at face-value. There is a purpose behind the lack of a story; perhaps Malick is trying to tell us through this film, that life doesn’t have a destination as much as a journey. Most of the film feels like a prayer, as it is heavy with us humans trying to talk to God, looking for answers.

Carrying things along through the painfully slow and tedious pacing, is the outstanding and intimate way the kids are filmed. The camera is always eye-level with the children, and the viewer is instantly transported back to the days of their youth; when entertainment was found in playing with their hands, when frogs and grasshoppers were magical, and darkened stairways were spooky. Malick somehow makes the viewer not a viewer, but smack dab in the middle of the children’s’ world. It is remarkable.

Again, this is not a film that can be taken at face-value. The fragmented editing style can make anyone believe that Malick has finally lost his marbles. The film cuts from 1950 to the present day, then to a shot of a waterfall, then to a nebula, back to 1950, and then to a salamander, and then to Sean Penn in the a desert. A lot of it makes no sense, especially when the narration offers no answers and lots of questions. There are editing choices here that might not sink in until years after.

The score is fucking outstanding.

It’s difficult to gage the acting as the players don’t do a whole lot of it; they instead fill Malick’s beautifully composed frame as part of the scenery. However, when acting does come about, it is very, very good. Pitt gets the most screentime, and it is so easy for anyone to relate the character to their childhood experiences; like the moment when Dad stopped being a hero and became human. Powerful. It just may strike a lot of people right in the bottom of the cockles.

This blogger purposefully waited two days after viewing TREE OF LIFE before writing about it, as the gut-reaction was to say Malick is a goddamn nutball. However it is clear that there is a deeper message to be felt, more than seen with this film. That and the technical qualities make it one of the most gorgeous films ever made. TREE OF LIFE is a film that needs to be seen, just don’t be surprised if it takes you ten years to understand it.


No comments:

Post a Comment

A few rules:
1. Personal attacks not tolerated.
2. Haters welcome, if you can justify it.
3. Swearing is goddamn OK.