Thursday, June 30, 2011
TEFB REVIEW: THE TREE OF LIFE
Starring Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain, Hunter McCraken
There is more emotional honesty about adolescence in ten minutes of Terrence Malick's new film The Tree of Life than in the entirety of JJ Abrams' most recent supposed nostalgia piece Super 8. While they are two wildly different movies, both explore the mysteries of adolescence and coming of age. Abrams film strives hard to appeal to the inner child in us all, but in the end fails (although just barely) because his young characters are only truly relatable to those of us who are in love with the art and magic of filmmaking. While this is great - and certainly recognizable (cool, the kids like to make movies and there's a Dawn of the Dead poster on the wall!) - to the movie geek in the audience, it's this specificity that keeps the experiences Super 8's cast from truly connecting on a larger and more meaningful level. The few times the film is successful in this regard, it's mainly due to the performances of the two lead actors more than the work of the screenplay or direction.
Malick's film succeeds where Abrams's doesn't because it's simply more earnest in it's endeavor. While Super 8 at times caters to a certain audience, making sure the kids are always doing something some folks in the audience may identify with, The Tree of Life is more concerned with relating universal childhood experiences and responses . While the former film does an admirable job of attempting that, only the latter truly evokes recognizable feelings and emotions.
The Tree of Life doesn't tell a straight narrative story rather than give glimpses of moments in time, usually with very little (or no) dialogue. It's standard Malick - he's been making films that operate this way since Days of Heaven, although never to this extreme. After a quick introduction to the family documented in the film (headed by patriarch Mr. O'Brien - played by Brad Pitt and his wife (Jessica Chastain)), the film suddenly begins to display a series of visually breathtaking images showing the beginning of life in the universe, from the big bang to the extinction of the dinosaurs. After this twenty minute segue, we see the birth of Mr. and Mrs. O'Brien's first son Jack. The film then spends it's main portion following the life of young Jack (a wonderful Hunter McCraken), focusing mainly on his transition into puberty. Jack butts heads with his stern but loving father, and falls in love with his doting mother. He fights with his two younger brothers, he plays with his friends. He learns the finality of life after witnessing his first death, and the cruelty of God after his father loses his job. He becomes rebellious and feels a first twinge of regret. Witnessing these times in Jack's life, we come to realize that the creation of the universe that we saw before is every bit as dramatic and wonderful as the birth and first dozen or so years of one's life. This comes into focus even more as the film jumps ahead to show older Jack (Sean Penn) a man reflecting on those years and coming to terms with how much they shaped who he is.
Throughout the film, Malick shoots with a handheld camera, capturing every confused flick of Jack's eyebrow, every frustrated twitch of the mouth. Many times, the film seems to wander int a scene where something is about to happen, then cuts out. Very rarely does Malick stop to explain something or give a few minutes for the narrative to move forward in any recognizable way. It can be a frustrating experience for some viewers (the film jumps around chronologically as well), but it's Malick's statement (a perhaps obvious one) that adolescence (and life, to be completely honest) is recalled only in fragments. It's the details in the periphery of the experiences one seems to recall more than the experience itself. It's a color, a shape, a movement, a look on someone's face. Malick is is more concerned with creating moods and textures, evoking feelings, and loosely tying together themes than he is of giving a traditional throughline to the film.
If there's one reason to see The Tree of Life it's this: it's arguably the most visually breathtaking film I've ever seen. The effects detailing the big bang and beginnings of life on Earth are spectacular and gorgeous, and while the CG dinosaurs aren't quite rendered to perfection, the micro-photography (showing the division of cells and the fetus of some early Archean-era creature) is stellar, and combined with the grandiose celestial imagery of the legendary Douglas Trumbell (who also worked on 2001: A Space Odyssey - a film that I believe is very much a companion piece to The Tree of Life) makes for a jaw-dropping experience. If anything, The Tree of Life is a showcase for old-school special effects and proof that imagery created by computers is no match for the power of tangible, in camera effects work.
As magnificent as it is, though, The Tree of Life, perhaps because of it's unconventionality and ambitiousness, is not without its faults. The scenes with Penn - cut into the film mostly as book-ends - stick out in particular. I believe I understand their meaning, as previously mentioned, however, old Jack is given nothing to do but stumble around his office building dazed. And when he's not stumbling around his office dazed, he's wandering through the desert just as dazed. Penn is given even less dialogue than the other actors, and I don't think Malick ties these portions of the film in successfully with the hour and a half or so in between.
Minor quibbles aside, I don't think there will be another film this year filled with so many questions about life but ultimately joyous about being able to live it. The Tree of Life is an amazing emotional experience for those willing to endure it's sometimes ponderous pace and meandering narrative. It's demanding, yes, but fulfilling and (although I hate to use the word) profound. One might be sick of Malick and his penchant for whispers and long takes of nature, but never has an existential film like this felt so warm and inviting.