More meditation than movie, Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life” is bound to mystify, awe and exasperate in equal measures. Another profoundly inspired and visually scrumptious multi-year production from the reclusive filmmaker, Malick’s fifth feature in a career that spans three decades contains his most audacious treatment of the themes percolating throughout his works.
“Tree of Life” represents the greatest expression of heady Malickian concepts, which usually involve humanity adrift in the chaos of the universe and the meaning of everything (or lack thereof). In this situation, he removes excess story and assembles a sweeping visual poem. “Tree of Life” has characters but, unlike the rest of the Malick canon, barely the hint of a plot.
The very fact that Malick can get away with such a highly experimental and inherently non-commercial effort, while still casting two of the most recognizable movie stars in the world — Brad Pitt and Sean Penn, the latter of whom appears in only a handful of scenes — deserves admiration.
“Tree of Life” benefits from a working knowledge of Malick’s affinity for overt metaphorical imagery, pensive voiceovers and stirring renditions of natural beauty. Few other filmmakers can work on this scale without some compromises, but Malick manages to deviate from his cross-generational family drama with cosmically endowed CGI visuals recounting the beginning and end of time. The movie’s very existence means he got away with it, even if audiences expecting something familiar throw up their hands. Others (myself included) will find Malick’s spectacular vision as mesmerizing and provocative as he undoubtedly intends. Relentlessly batty and quixotic, “Tree of Life” is sometimes weighed down by its eccentricities, but not enough to ruin its appeal.
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The gist of the movie involves two eras. The setting is Waco–the Texas city where Malick was born. In the 1950s, a suburban couple (Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain) learn that middle child has died under mysterious circumstances. The innocent older son (Hunter McKracken) witnesses his parents’ grief with extreme mystification and grows up in a household informed by his awareness of a less than perfect harmony to the world. Decades later, the boy has grown up and become an architect played by Sean Penn, whose entire screen time amounts to under 10 minutes. (Malick somehow manages to relegate big faces to small roles: “The Thin Red Line” included about 30 seconds of George Clooney.)
The chosen profession of Penn’s character reflects his need to put pieces together and construct a working knowledge of reality, despite its elusiveness as Malick portrays it. As an adult, Penn struggles to make peace with his tattered family life, particularly the estranged relationship he maintained with his demanding father following his brother’s death. But the source of his frustration ventures far beyond that fundamental psychological hang-up.
Malick’s focus on fleeting conversations and memories rather than standard narrative arcs draws out his characters’ symbolic dimension. From start to finish, “Tree of Life” grapples with the prospects of surviving and suffering on a Biblical level, although its religious traits are non-denominational.
Malick begins with a quote from Job, but quickly launches into a much-anticipated flashback to the Big Bang and Earth’s explosive origins, including masterfully rendered shots of a primordial sea, colorful cell birth and, yes, a couple of soul-searching dinosaurs. (All of this suggests ideal viewing conditions in IMAX.) Malick’s adorable horn-billed critters have less screen time than Penn, but they’ve been considered the movie’s biggest stars since rumors about their appearance made the rounds on the web.
Despite not being best rendition of the species this side of “Jurassic Park,” their synthetic appearance underscores the wonderful oddity of the entire tangent, which also includes luscious space imagery supposedly guided to completion by a team of NASA scientists. It’s a beguiling deviation that calls to mind the sensational climax to “2001: A Space Odyssey,” but Malick’s use of science fiction components exclusively exist in the abstract.
The actors are never overshadowed by the special effects; in fact, Malick uses the cast in a manner similar to the way he travels through time. Pitt looks more focused than any of his recent roles and Chastain (who portrays another troubled housewife in the similarly otherworldly “Take Shelter,” also playing at Cannes) delivers her constant mopey expression with a necessary degree of understatement. Between the two of them, their observant child witnesses dual approaches to seeing the world. His father tells him to “Have control over your destiny” and teaches him to fight back against bullies, while his mother gives him gentler treatment.
None of this has a linear design. “Tree of Life” progresses with an unending parade of visuals, captured in a complex palette by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, the only person involved with Malick’s under-appreciated “The New World” to receive an Oscar nomination. If Lubezki treats his job like a painter, Malick uses his magic to make the artwork come to life. Whoever cut the trailer for “Tree of Life” not only nailed the look of the movie; they also perfectly encapsulated the experience of watching it.
That’s not to say that “Tree of Life” lacks a dramatic edge. Presumably taking his father’s advice that “the world lives by trickery” so “in order to succeed, you can’t be too good,” the child starts to act out. In one scene, he ties a frog to fireworks and blows it to bits, and gives into peer pressure from other neighborhood kids to throw a rock through a window.
Eventually, he begins to resent his father’s tough parenting: “Please, god, kill him,” he implores in voiceover, only to have second thoughts when dad wakes up to the world. In short, his father becomes the literal embodiment of the environmental consciousness seen in every Malick movie, reveling in “the glory around us… trees, birds. I dishonored it all and didn’t notice the glory.” Perhaps in response, “Tree of Life” displays that glory in virtually every shot.
Malick briefly returns to CGI with the movie’s curious ending, which includes a concise vision of Earth’s demise and unexplained shots of lost souls wandering across a sun-soaked beach. His final shot takes us back to civilization with a renewed perspective, but no easy answers.
“Tree of Life” is not an enigma that begs to be solved. In fact, Malick defies the need for any explanations early on: In a passing conversation, Pitt tells his son the meaning of the word “subjectivity,” which may also constitute Malick’s address to the audience. It’s as though he were saying: Make of this what you will. Or don’t.
HOW WILL IT PLAY? At the end of the movie’s first press screening at Cannes, loud booing could be heard throughout the Palais, but just as many people responded with cheers. This much is clear: Critics will be divided. But the movie’s lush appearance and star power should provide enough ammo for the savvy marketing team at Fox Searchlight to turn it into a hit.
criticWIRE grade: A-