What’s Past is Prologue: The Tree of Life

05/25/2011 4:00 AM |

The Tree of Life

Directed by Terrence Malick

Opens May 27

Nature has always been the measure by which Terrence Malick cuts his characters. Within environments that fluctuate between fragile placidity and raging cruelty, glorious magic-hour long shots place his heroes in humbling relief against the overwhelming landscapes they attempt to dominate or reclaim; detailed close-ups of animal and plant life enmesh them in a cosmological chain of violence and beauty.

Now, with newely laureled Palme d’Or winner The Tree of Life, Malick extends this all-encompassing vision into the temporal realm. The film concerns Jack O’Brien (Sean Penn), an architect who recalls his childhood in a 1950s Texas suburb. But into the story Malick introduces—in what for many will be a revelation of Space Odyssey proportions or else an incitement to storm the theater exits—a lengthy quasi-prologue covering the formation of our planet through pullulating astral bodies, erupting volcanoes, boiling oceans, bonding molecules, proliferating sea creatures, and stalking dinosaurs.

Against the immensity of time and its glacial evolutions, just how important are the events of Jack’s life—including the untimely death of a younger brother, the Job-like catastrophe that sparks his quest to understand existence? Malick’s answer is Whitmanesque: Jack (played as a boy by Hunter McCracken) possesses a universe-in-himself, replete with his own immensities and evolutions. These are evoked in a fugue of cascading, fragmentary memories, dreams, and whispered voiceovers that reveal domestic mysteries—Tarkovskian chairs that move by themselves, a slow ascension toward an eerie garret—as well as formative encounters with the wider, harsher world: a peer’s lakeside drowning, a downtown excursion that yields a gawking introduction to drunks and convicts. An Oedipal drama provides the through-line. Jack’s playful mother (Jessica Chastain) stands as the angelic beacon of his carefree infancy; Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt), a frustrated professional and tough-love disciplinarian, bullies an older Jack into fits of anti-social delinquency.

This is but an inkling of the multitudes contained within The Tree of Life (Emmanuel Lubezki’s tactile cinematography, Alexandre Desplat’s soaring classical score, and production designer Jack Fisk’s perfectly conceived Americana, surrealist, and post-modern domiciles can only receive parenthetical mention here). Yet return visits to the sensorium prove the film’s flaws unignorable. Clichés pock its visual tapestry: a child sticks his hand out a car window, dipping it through the air; a field of sunflowers represents heaven. Bildungsroman Jack never truly matches Penn’s grown version since the latter remains a barely glimpsed cipher. And an 8 1/2-inspired coda—featuring the O’Briens and other characters reunited within Jack’s splendiferous mental landscapes in order to acceptingly relinquish the younger brother to God—might have resonated much more profoundly had we gotten to better know this sibling.

Perhaps such imperfections are intrinsic to the majesty of The Tree of Life. For the unabashedly lyrical Malick, the film’s presumably autobiographical details are shockingly raw, and his ability to create rich impressions of youth without sacrificing their painful and exhilarating immediacy constitutes a minor miracle. If some elements—especially the last act catharsis—feel awkward, so be it. Ambition has its price, but the rewards Malick offers are exceedingly deep, bogglingly vast, and truly rare.

5 Comment

  • Sorry, I don’t understand how he found a distributor for this film which is all over the place and nowhere. How can you speak of it in reference to Kubrick’s ” 2001 : a space odyssey” — I guess that’s your reference –which holds together from beginning to end? For the shallow, vacuous role of Sean Penn, it might as well have been played by X. And what about the dinosaurs, huh? Without a doubt the shots of natural phenomena are exceptional, but Yann Arthus-Bertrand’s been there, done that. I nearly fell asleep, whereas others in my local cinema simply walked out.

  • you don’t understand how a major American director’s new film, which took the top prize at the world’s premier film festival, found a distributor?

  • Isn’t it the quality of the content of the film, not the previous works of its director nor the hoopla surrounding its premier, which should determine how broadly or whether the film is released? As you participate in an annual review of Academy Award contenders — do you not? — you may have commented on films whose promotion you felt to be greater than the stuff they were flogging. Look at the films that were not awarded at Cannes.

  • Are you implying, Artemis, that this work of art, simply because you didn’t like it personally, should not be widely distributed in theaters so that people can make up their own minds about it? Scary.

  • Please do not read into what I did not say. I simply responded to the previous comment. Of course everyone should be able to make up her/his own mind. I did, which seems to be at the root of this discussion. Apparently you consider this film to be a work of art, but I don’t know how you define your terms : a film, by definition, is a work of art, or this film is outstanding?