Fri 10 Jun 2011
Terrence Malick is not what you would call a prolific filmmaker. Including his feature film debut of “Badlands” in 1973, he’d rattled off a total of four films in 37 years. But with “The Tree of Life”, number five is out there and it’s justifiably getting a lot of good critical buzz.
As expected in a Malick production, the acting is top notch. Brad Pitt has shown he’s quite capable of delivering a fully dynamic, developed character and does so here as the patriarch of the O’Brien family. It’s the 1950s and he’s got a good job, earning the bread money for his wife (Jessica Chastain) and their three sons (Hunter McCracken, Laramie Eppler, Tye Sheridan). However, as his career begins to flounder, he grows increasingly frustrated and begins taking things out on those closest to him. Watching this slow descent by Pitt is fascinating and one of the better performances of the year to this point.
Chastain is equally impressive, fulfilling her role as dutiful housewife and protector of her children from a husband whose softer sides are being sharpened away. Rounding out the family, the actors portraying their kids perfectly depict their roles and make the 1950s segments an entire film until itself.
This brings up perhaps the most difficult element audiences unfamiliar with Malick’s work or unused to anything but straightforward problem/resolution films, will have. There are many layers to “The Tree of Life”, as comparisons and contrasts are made, sometimes overtly but often via metaphor, between numerous themes; religion vs. spirituality, man vs. nature, man vs. himself, to name a few. The film deals with loss, creation, and family. It’s also a portrait of this seemingly perfect family at a time, the 1950s, which exemplifies fundamental American ideals.
And what may frustrate some while pleasing others is that Malick doesn’t seem to give us clear cut answers. See this with a few friends and enjoy the debate afterwards on what was being represented by the closing scenes, by the amorphous glowing light that serves as some sort of visual interlude between segments, by the actions of a velociraptor and its prey, by Mr. O’Brien’s struggle with being so devoutly religious and wondering how his family could face so many obstacles. It’s a lot to take in, and it may take some time afterwards just to gather your thoughts and conclusions as to what the film was trying to say. That’s perfectly fine with me, not so much with others. And it’s okay if you’re in that latter group. Don’t let someone tell you only smart people enjoy this sort of thing because the expectations and reasons for seeing films differs from person to person.
Back to the merits of Malick’s film, where it truly marvels is in depicting the birth and development of the Earth. We’re shown the formation of the planet itself, how it changed from a dead piece of rock into a living, breathing world; with evolving organisms, from the most rudimentary forms of life all the way up to the dinosaurs (sorry, Creationists). All of the effects are outstanding and this segment of the film is one of the most impressive stretches of cinema I’ve seen in years.
And whereas the actors and effects are all compelling, once again Malick delivers perhaps the best shot film since … well, probably since his last film, 2005′s “The New World”. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki returns from that effort and I’d be completely surprised, albeit happily so, if any other film this year looks better. The light balance, the composition of the elements, the clearly thought out and well-conceived camera placement and movement; all of it is astounding.
Working in harmony with the director, cinematographer and effects team is composer Alexandre Desplat. His original creations compliment the actions on-screen rather than compete with them. They also go hand in hand with a number of established classical, orchestral, and operatic pieces. (A full listing can be found at Indiewire’s The Playlist here.)
While it’s up to each person to find a connection to the material, there’s really no denying the artistry on display in “The Tree of Life” and as such it receives a 4 out of 5. Those looking for more than comic book adaptations, sequels, and basic popcorn entertainment definitely have something here to appreciate. And whereas some films are fine to watch at home, and some are better on the big screen, to truly appreciate Malick’s latest work, you MUST see this in a nicely projected theater; even if that means a few more travel miles. Seeing this as it was meant to be presented is a treat unto itself, even before factoring in the content delivered by the script and the actors.