The Difficult Gifts of The Tree of Life
Including glimpses of Sleeping Beauty in her glass coffin, the rings of Saturn, and a roadside Texas BBQ, Terrence Malicks The Tree of Life bears forth a variety of formsand invites as many reactions. You may feel amazed or muddled, softly spoken to, or simply abandoned while watching it; in any case, you shouldnt wait for the DVD. Better than a masterpiecewhatever that isThe Tree of Life is an eruption of a movie, something to live with, think, and talk about afterward.
The film begins with the OBriens (Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain) receiving news of their teenaged sons death, their grief echoing through perplexing shot sequences and sparse dialogue. Its enough to confirm the scuttlebutt that The Tree of Life will be the most unorthodox Hollywood drama in many moonsand then the films perspective switches to the Hubble for a vision of the birth of the universe. From a nebulous In the Beginning . . . to the first articulations of life on Earth and the reign and extinction of the dinosaurs, this silent, self-contained sequence was conceived in collaboration with pre-CGI-effects legend Douglas Trumbull, fresh out of retirement. The image of a beached plesiosaur craning its neck to contemplate the fatal wound raked across its side lingers on, symbol of a wounding and disorienting work. Its the big-budget experimental film George Lucas never had the stones to make.
Snap forward to the 1950s, the middle-class suburbs of Waco, and the OBrien family in an earlier, happier moment. Jack (Hunter McCracken), the eldest of three preadolescent brothers, emerges as the axis of the film; the process of his education and acculturation to the edge of puberty is documented in a headlong style that lifts sometimes to singing montage. (Usually the crediting of five editors would be reason to panic; Mr. Malicks film has very little truck with whats usual.)
The Tree of Life
The Tree of Life
Written and directed by Terrence Malick
Opens May 27
Scenes occur as if bobbing on the surface of a familys collective consciousness. Were transported intermittently to a future where the boy Jack has grown up into a crabby Sean Penn, daydreaming from a glass rectangle in downtown Houston, a contemporary America to make Thomas Jefferson pack it in. In large part, the film can be read as occurring in the mind of adult Jack returning to his birthright of memories: the indivisible combination of Mom, Dad, God, and backyard.
Chastains mother is transparent with virtue, the idealized homefront sweetheart dreamed in Malicks The Thin Red Line but now stretched gauzy over feature length. A less worshipfully written part gives Pitt more to do. Though more affectionate than our image of the flat-top Eisenhower-era patriarch, Mr. OBrien badgers his sons with lessons in Looking Out For No. 1 and backyard boxing. Venting a bellyful of frustrated ambition, he talks covetously about the folks on the hill, brags about his worthless patents, and finds an outlet for unrealized musical aspirations by playing the church organ. This provides some of the classical music that fills Tree of Life, much of it liturgical, fitting Jacks growing, paralleled disillusion with his father and the Father: Why should I be good if you arent? hes asking both.
Though markedly faithful to Darwin, Malicks film begins with a quotation from the Book of Job, imagines heaven, and features Mother pointing to the sky to deliver the lesson: God lives there. Like anything ambitious, Tree of Life will be called pretentious, but its characters address the gauche subject of the eternal, naturally, through the Judeo-Christian lingua franca instead of via a vague, enervated spirituality. In this, it is quite direct and accessible.
With his cosmic realism, Malick vividly remembers youths intimate yet huge idea of God, and Tree of Lifes Genesis overture recalls a childs awed first conception of the vastness beyond his proscribed world. Thus prepared, you have fresh eyes to see suburbia as, yes, a miracle. The close touch of DP Emmanuel Lubezkis Steadicam brings childhood rites near: roughhousing, betrayals of confidence, the clandestine thrill of being alone in a strange house, a childs frank curiosity toward town drunks, cripples, and the black boys at that BBQ.
In his evocation of lost-Eden childhood, Malick shows the wisdom of C.S. Lewiss An Experiment in Criticism: If we are to use the words childish and infantile as terms of disapproval, we must make sure that they refer only to those characteristics of childhood which we become better and happier by outgrowing, Lewis wrote. Who in his sense would not keep, if he could, that tireless curiosity, that intensity of imagination, that facility of suspending disbelief, that unspoiled appetite, that readiness to wonder, to pity, and to admire? It is because the 67-year-old director can get so much of that onscreen, and much more besides, that hes one of the few American filmmakers operating on the multiplex scale who makes movies feel like undiscovered country.
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