Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The Tree of Life

Director: Terrence Malick
Starring: Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, Jessica Chastain, Hunter McCracken, Laramie Eppler, Tye Sheridan, Joanna Going
Running Time: 138 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★★ (out of ★★★★)

Certain films warrant endless discussion and analysis only minutes after the final credits roll. Those who write about movies know them well since they go running to the keyboard to spill their thoughts and others quickly talk about with friends to see if they're on the same page. Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life meets all the qualifications of a film that should be deeply analyzed and picked apart (and it is already by many), yet when it ended the last thing I wanted to do was write about it or talk to anyone. I just wanted to sit there and let it sink in. Then I wanted to be alone to reflect on it. Less a film than a symphony, interpretation and analysis is fun, but futile considering each individual will bring however much or little of themselves they want to it.  What it all means could be summed up as "everything," but that still doesn't even really touch it. We're born into this world, make connections with different people that can be fleeting or not, and then we leave it, never pausing to consider whether there's a universal scheme in place hurling us toward our inevitable destination. We've seen movies try to tackle the topic but this is the first to make sure it's felt completely.

Similar to a collage of dreams or memories, everything is presented in a non-linear format rather than in a traditional narrative structure. Scenes flow freely to form emotions rather than necessarily tell a story, which is sort of a first. Almost embarrassingly messy and over-ambitious, time will have to judge it's worth as a true masterpiece, but this does feel like something monumentally important that should be talked about for a while to come. No matter which side of the fence you fall on in terms of its quality, there's no denying it's unlike anything we've seen recently, and deserves respect even from those who can't bring themselves to admire it.  It's a game-changer that pushes the medium in a new direction and demands all its layers be peeled away an image at a time. Whether it's as altering an experience as the reclusive Malick intended it to be for will be argued over multiple viewings and succeeding years but this does feel like the movie he's slowly been building toward his entire career, if not his whole life.

The fragmented, stream-of-consciousness narrative centers around different, but intrinsically linked timelines. It opens with a series of dreamlike images, flashbacks and whispery voice overs before shifting to the arrival of a telegram informing Mrs. O'Brien (Jessica Chastain) of the death of her 19 year-old son, presumably overseas at war (Vietnam?) but we can't be sure since Malick leaves it to us to fill in all the details. She notifies her husband, Mr. O'Brien (Brad Pitt) of the news via telephone, but it's not until much later when we've learned enough to properly put in context their differing reactions. Then we shift to present-day with their other son, a middle-aged Jack O' Brien (Sean Penn) depressed and emotionally absent as he goes through the motions of his daily life as an architect, haunted by the anniversary of his brother's death and memories of their childhood together.

Before flashing back to their days growing up in Waco, Texas in the 1950's (a stretch that accounts for the majority of the film's running time) there's an extended 18 minute-sequence depicting the creation of the universe that very heavily recalls the "stargate" sequence at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey in that it doesn't use computer generated imagery and looks and feels real (incidentally, the same special effects supervisor, Douglas Trumbull, worked on both). And that film is really the only point of reference and entryway we have into to this one which otherwise resembles little that's come before and seems to make-up a visual language of its own as it hypnotically unfolds.

The sequence culminates with scenes involving dinosaurs that at first glance seem only present for historical reasons, but in hindsight their actions (like the apes in 2001) take on a very concrete significance in relation to human events that occur later.  You may as well hear Kubrick clapping from beyond the grave since the entire project seems to represent exactly the kind of ambitious vision he'd undoubtedly support, or attempt to film himself, if he were still living. For better or worse, his version would likely be emotionally colder, steering clear of the looser, more impressionistic moments Malick loses himself in and surrenders to. 

Taking up most of the film's second half is the childhood sequence in 1950's Waco, which contains some of the most remarkably accurate and evocative representations of childhood that could be put on a screen. Emmanuel Lubezki's photography, Jack Fisk's production design and Alexandre Desplat's score all converge to create a perfect storm of atmosphere so palpable that you may as well be there with the characters. For about an hour straight it feels as if you're in the hands of a master magician rather than a filmmaker as we witness the lives of the O'Brien family through a series of memories and images not all necessarily presented in order but feeling like a full-blown time travel trip through the defining moments of a life.

We follow young Jack (Hunter McCracken) from birth into adolescence and tracks his relationship with his two brothers, especially the younger, favored brother R.L. (Laramie Eppler). The three boys both fear and respect their father Mr. O' Brien (demanding to be called "father," not "dad"), a strict, disciplinarian who's own failure at becoming a musician has resulted in behavior that borders on abusiveness, and often crosses the line into it. The  more empathetic, almost ethereal Mrs. O' Brien is childlike in her demeanor, and while not naive to her husband's faults, protects and comforts children without ever daring to cross him. So terrifying is his behavior that an impromptu business trip creates one of the more memorable scenes when the children celebrate his absence, and Jack's pent-up id runs wild in surprising ways, confirming he may actually need more of his father's rules and discipline than he thinks. How Jack internalizes this rocky relationship with his father not only comprises the meat of the childhood chapter, but also figures into the controversial Sean Penn section, even if explaining exactly how would probably require the length of a novel and numerous spoilers, at least as far as it's possible to "spoil" a plot this abstract.

The Waco chapter of the film is so flawless that it's hard to reconcile where everything else fits in terms of quality. The knee jerk reaction is to assume Malick sets the bar so high for himself that he can't top it with what's left, but I'm not sure I buy into that. For me the most emotionally gut-wrenching scene of the film is when the family leave their home after Mr. O'Brien is transferred from his job and Jack gets one last glance through the car's window. It feels like a death of sorts and in many ways it is since his brother will eventually die and his childhood is preserved in this period of his life, and that moment. We all have those snapshots stored in our minds which is why this family's story resonates so strongly and there's an inescapable temptation for us to reflect on own memories as we watch it, substituting ourselves in for the characters.

This is easily the best work Brad Pitt's ever done and it's a testament to just how much else is going on here that the underrated performance is flying under the radar of most. It's because of Pitt that Mr. O'Brien doesn't come off as an evil, abusive tyrant as he very well could have, but a demanding parent whose anger comes from wanting a better life for his boys than he had for himself.  You can almost understand why he does the things he does without necessarily agreeing with any of those decisions or condoning his treatment of the boys.

Carrying much of the film in what's far from a supporting role, Pitt has never been one to ever phone it in for a paycheck and this is the latest, possibly greatest, example of him using his clout to star in a difficult, challenging work that pushes him further as an actor, often at the expense of leaving money on the table angering fans who came to see this only because of his star power. You'd figure audiences would have learned their lesson last year after Clooney burned them with The American or at least realized from the commercials that this wasn't going to be the Pitt/Penn dinosaur hunter movie they expected. But as strong as Pitt is, relative unknowns Hunter McCracken and Jessica Chastain manage to stay right there with him, the former with a quiet intensity in his face that speaks volumes even in complete silence.

While at first it's hard to make heads or tails of the Sean Penn section of the film and the eventual ending, it's accurate to say anyone who hated the finale of Lost, will despise it. What's interesting about the presumably "present day" scenes involving adult Jack is how open to interpretation they are. In one sense it seems as if Jack is imprisoned in this cold, modern world with soulless skyscrapers surrounding him, an unfulfilling job, a house so sterile it doesn't even appear lived in, and a distant, possibly non-existent, relationship with his wife. Yet it could also be looked at as if Jack isn't trapped in this existence as much as he's a prisoner of his own memories and therefore unable to appreciate the modern beauty around him, at least until he comes to terms with his past.

It can't be merely a coincidence that these are are the first present-day scenes the reclusive Malick has ever filmed when you consider most of his movies (and this is only his fifth in four decades) seem to have a reverence for the past that implies no matter how good or bad things were then, they'll always inevitably be better than now. That could help explain why this challenging, indulgent portion of the film exists and why most viewers would have problems with it. Any disappointment felt watching the ending moments of the film in relation to the incredible childhood chapter that came earlier can be explained away by the fact that the protagonist is supposed to feel it more, and clearly he does.

This obviously isn't a film for casual moviegoers, but I can't help but laugh at the irony of that statement since I've always considered myself one. But after seeing this with an audience yelling at the screen with impatience and confusion while the rest walked out at various points demanding a refund (for a free screening!), I'm starting to second guess that. Apparently, my experience wasn't an isolated incident so those who can enjoy, or even just appreciate the film for what it is (and isn't) will have to accept that critics and audiences vehemently disagree. That's not necessarily a negative considering it's a rare gift a film this discussion-ready is dropped in the middle of summer, usually a dead zone for anything of substantial quality. But the most exciting thing about The Tree of Life just might be that a filmmaker aimed this high and didn't let the judgment of public opinion or studio pressure get in the way of him creating a work of art that feels this vast and epic, yet so personal at the same time. Regardless of its outcome, Malick should be credited for realizing his vision since it's doubtful any other filmmaker would have had the guts or skill to go this far with it.


The Film Connoisseur said...

This movie makes people write great reviews! I've read a lot of them, and most of them love the film to death. I think it's unanimous, movie buffs have recognized a great film, even if the rest of the world doesnt get it. I was at a screening were people were giggling when it was over, but that was only half of the audience, the other half of the audience was mesmerized, steel reeling in what they had just seen.

It was the weirdest thing!

Great review man, I agree with every word you said, I agree that this film can mean many different things to many different people. I think he captured childhood so perfectly in that film that many people will immediately connect with it.

My pick for best film of 2011, so far!

Ben K said...

The best film I've seen in 2011 so far. There's nothing else quite like it!