Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Tree Of Life

In Life,
The Father(s), The Son And The DNA Of Why


Images from Terrence Malick's Palme D'Or-winning drama "The Tree Of Life" . 
Fox Searchlight

by Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW
Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Did you ever ask a question about why things happen the way they do?  Why is a newborn child so cute?  (Or quite often so darn ugly?)  Why can someone forgive the murderer who has altered their family forever?  Why can you survive extreme trauma and others can't or don't?  Does a higher power ever figure in?  Does believing in love pay off?  Or does having faith alone get you through?  Or is it just life's lucky and unlucky rolls of the dice?  Are these questions relevant in the grand scheme of things?

If any of this and other conundrums and curiosities interest you, then if nothing else you will be fascinated by "The Tree Of Life", a stunning and deeply beautiful cinematic presentation that opens this weekend in New York and Los Angeles and expands around the U.S. and into Canada beginning in June, with wide release across North America on July 8.  Terrence Malick directs this epic drama, which won the Palme D'Or this week albeit amidst reportedly considerable controversy amongst some in the Cannes Film Festival jury headed by Robert De Niro.

At the start we hear whispering voices.  We see undulating spectra.  Soon we are in Midwestern America in the rather staid, very conservative 1950s.  Cameras, hand-held and Steadicam, follow a family of five.  The mother and father love, or at least used to love each other, but now hardly converse at all.  Their three young boys speak for them.  The boys are the space and meaning that defines the couples' lives.  The images early on are energetic and idyllic but also ragged and abrupt as we familiarize ourselves with the O'Briens. 

The father, aka Mr. O'Brien (Brad Pitt), doctrinaire and distant, works at a machinist plant which he apparently owns.  He has patents for his business.  Ownership is key, he tells one son.  We gain little knowledge of his surroundings at work -- only that he seems muted, desperately alone and isolated -- and dwarfed by his isolation.  Mr. O'Brien's belief in the Lord appears to restore him and at home he's animated but disciplined when with his family.  He appears to act out (for some, the acting out occurs at work.)  The father is activated by a religious righteousness borne out of a tense relationship with a surrogate, omnipresent father.  Mr. Malick chronicles this well, and shows us that the generational struggle between fathers and sons are present across all forms of life.

The mother, aka Mrs. O'Brien (Jessica Chastain), is more or less a type of "Suzie Homemaker", working hard to preserve and protect the home while enjoying the company of her three beautiful sons.  But there's something missing.  There's a muted sadness that swirls around the O'Briens' metaphorical white picket fence of security, innocence and Norman Rockwell-like homestead. 

Jack, the eldest O'Brien son, played so memorably by Hunter McCracken, has experienced loss and it affects him deeply.  He's smart, and always looks as if he is thinking.  As if he is pained.  As if he is internalizing what he sees around him and what his father says and does.  The weight of the world is on his shoulders.  As Jack grows older (played by Sean Penn), that burden continues.  Or is it that the mature Jack is merely thinking back to his childhood?  Rodin surely wouldn't know the answer.  Is Mr. Malick's film one huge flashback?

Sean Penn as older Jack in "The Tree Of Life" .  Merie Wallace/Fox Searchlight

The mournful, exploring, older Jack is a lonely, disappointed figure.  He's an occupational success in life as an architect but not necessarily a personal success at love.  There's a deep sadness and regret to him, a feeling of missed opportunities to get to know the father (or is that Father?) who taught him to be strong.  Jack is haunted if not tortured by the whys, hows and unanswerables.

When Jack whispers, whether as young Jack or contemporary Jack, it may seem as if all the hosts of heaven and earth -- all the life forms known to humankind -- can hear him clearly.  But can He hear Jack?  We don't necessarily "see" God or even glimpse an approximation of an image that the higher power may take.  (Atheists may not glimpse anything at all.)  Is Jack calling out in vain?  Are his prayers going unheard as well as unanswered?  Are his questions infinitesimal?  Or infinite?  Or fruitless?

Since thoughts and questions -- principally those of Jack, an always-searching soul, an innocent but scarred child/man -- are the backbone of "The Tree Of Life", it scarcely matters whether a narrative connection with the O'Brien family is generated beyond the most elementary of ways for the viewing audience to identify with the characters that Ms. Chastain (excellent in a role where she is virtually mute as an abused figure), Mr. Pitt and Mr. Penn play.  Mr. Pitt is precise, methodical and effortless as Mr. O'Brien in a performance that keeps us off guard with threatening bursts of anger.  Mr. Penn is good in sequences that ironically work as a stress reliever from the deeper questions of the film.  I wasn't distracted for a single second from this film, and I wanted more after it ended.

"The Tree Of Life" is life-affirming even as its central character Jack probes the whys of life and of where he and his Lord and Savior stand.  Jack has a relationship with two fathers.  One he sees and can't speak to unless spoken to.  The other he can't see but can feel and speak to.  Arguably and ironically, it is this second father who is more powerful and maybe more abusive than the first.  Jack's father (Mr. Pitt) also has a relationship with a higher power but in light of his rough, aggressive and abusive ways it appears to be a surface or uneasy relationship, one that is selfish, operating strictly to shield himself from his own wrongdoing instead of investigate and take responsibility for it.

Throughout, Jack is a constant and his troubled conscience remains steady.  Jack is forever chasing an elusive shadow of identity and harmony both within and without him.  Does he learn and grow?  What does he become? 

Mr. Malick's epic cerebral adventure is about many things, including living life as a choice between "nature...and grace", as one of the film's characters says.  We wander with Jack, a nomad in his own internal adventures, struggling to find balance, to find what it is that anchors him in life, whether that thing or things is faith, father, mother or all the above.  Jack's entreaties are quietly desperate, almost prayer-like.  "The Tree Of Life" explores life, existence and awareness the way "Eyes Wide Shut" explored fidelity, albeit without an art-house gloss.  Stanley Kubrick's final film was gravely underrated by some before it received greater respect and appreciation by critics and audiences alike, and I feel that Mr. Malick's latest film will be received in much the same way.

"The Tree Of Life", which was to have shown at the 2010 Cannes Festival but wasn't quite ready, is essentially divided into several poetic verses punctuated and demarcated by luminous imagery.  Life is short, and one of the most important things about "The Tree Of Life" is that the human place in the universe of life as it is lived is ephemeral and almost trivial, hence the considerable sequences of other life forms, planets and liquids that consume the screen.  If, as in Danny Glover's "Grand Canyon" character's eyes our time as humans "means diddly to those rocks" then "The Tree Of Life" amplifies that notion tenfold yet isn't nearly as outwardly cynical. 

Sean Penn as older Jack in "The Tree Of Life", written and directed by Terrence Malick .  Merie Wallace/Fox Searchlight

For some reason while writing this review over the past weekend I listened to George Michael's song "You Have Been Loved".  There's something about the song's lyric, "so if it's God who took her son, He cannot be the one living in her mind", that resonates with me and exemplifies what I believe may be a thought of the largely silent mother figure in Mr. Malick's film.  Mother O'Brien, played by Ms. Chastain, speaks a few times but her words are well-chosen.  The mother has presumably accepted the harshness of life even if she hasn't completely come to terms with it.  She apparently doesn't subscribe to any religion, although she may well believe in God.  We obviously can't tell that God lives in her mind, though what is clear is that she believes in love, and believes in it in its purest form.  She feels it and believes in it.  She shares that love with her sons.  It's such a beautiful thing to watch. 

Mr. Malick's film moves swiftly as it muses with purpose and feeling.  You observe and feel the pain, the discoveries, the joys, the lows of the film's significant moments without being cued to feel them.  "The Tree Of Life" never condescends, always respecting its audience.

There's a push and pull throughout the film in its visual and music choices, including Alexandre Desplat's wonderful score and the music of Brahms.  The director doesn't reconcile these stylistic tensions in order to come to a conclusion but only to present, observe and absorb them as they come to represent the differences in character within a family.  Mr. Malick offers the competing choices of the process of living life in a complete and thorough manner.

"The Tree Of Life" though, isn't about family as much as about the questions, events and internal issues that put it on trial in Jack's view.  The film isn't solely about the drama that familial fissures create.  "The Tree Of Life" is mostly about how a lack of love clouds thought and rational behavior while creating bitterness and distance.  The film is about how strident devotion to principles and the rigidity of order often shatters love, and how even deities that seemingly operate to provide larger guidance and safety move with an unseen hand that is as flawed as nature itself is. 

To answer the unanswerable, to grasp the unknowable means to penetrate questions that cease to have any meaning beyond their utterance.  To this end, "The Tree Of Life" is a consistently engaging exercise, and in posing the questions it is wonderfully alive. 

As with much of Terrence Malick's work the visions of his very personal films are intimate enough for art house presentation but grand and compelling enough to be exhibited on large multiplex screens.  The latter is where Mr. Malick's new film solidly deserves to be.  Those who love Brad Pitt and go into "The Tree Of Life" expecting Brad Pitt the movie star will come away having been immersed in a very different kind of experience than they may be accustomed to, though will be all the better for it.  Mr. Malick's films, always rich, beautiful and lyrical, are often fine counter-programming to the typical movie experience Hollywood weans satiated blockbuster audiences on.

Most importantly "The Tree Of Life" intelligently and earnestly presents a discussion about unanswerable questions about life, God and humanity without the über-pretention that could have absolutely shredded the film.  "The Tree Of Life" is instantly watchable, accessible and most of all, universal.  Whether or not you have children you may well have at one point or another presumably pondered the questions Mr. Malick's film asks. 

I can't wait to see "The Tree Of Life" all over again.  It's a special work, a magnificent spectacle to be enjoyed solely on a big screen.  For more than two hours you are arrested, fascinated and astounded by its questions, its revelations, its power and its incredible, undeniable beauty.  Mr. Malick presents his film and its issues in an intellectually honest and probing way, shortchanging neither the questions nor the participants who ask them.  The director has thought about the subject matter for an awfully long time, and it shows well.

Jessica Chastain as Mrs. O'Brien in Terrence Malick's epic drama "The Tree Of Life" .  Merie Wallace/Fox Searchlight

As luminous and otherworldly beautiful as "The Tree Of Life" is (credit wondrous photography by Emmanuel Lubezki and amazing special visual effects that Doug Trumbull would marvel at), Mr. Malick's film is not without its missteps.  There are two curious scenes, one especially so.  One features a species.  When the scene appears it seems an odd, mystifying presence that almost grinds the film to a complete halt.  Only later on in reflection does its existence symbolize tension amongst the film's featured family. 

The other scene comes near the film's end but thankfully stops short of becoming the kind of stage curtain call moment it threatens to be.  Had "The Tree Of Life" ended the way of say, James Cameron's "Titanic" it would have been difficult for me to like or appreciate it or Mr. Malick's intentions.  In Mr. Malick's meditation an elysian moment of emotion and belonging provide a small measure of solace in a sobering, though neither somber nor sad film, yet strangely enough this scene is also the film's sole weak link.

While some will note inescapable similarities at times to Mr. Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey" (and to a much lesser extent Darren Aronofsky's "The Fountain") in its themes, mood and trajectory, Mr. Malick has crafted a singular, extraordinary achievement.  He engineers a spiritual poetic odyssey that reaches our hearts and gets us to think about concrete issues often using abstract pictures to spur on and explode thought rather than manufacture or manipulate it.  In witnessing these images and hearing the whisper of words we are compelled to both think and absorb.

Other filmmakers may have used stock footage and fire-and-brimstone imagery.  Mr. Malick uses visions more at home in nature documentaries and discharges them not as gap-fillers but as illustrations of life continuum, from natural selection to primal existence to survival in an otherwise empty, sparsely-dialogued film. 

The biggest challenge for many, including those familiar with Mr. Malick's work, will be whether the spectacular imagery is a coherent enough fit with the events surrounding a strict, cold-hearted father whose shortcomings help force one of his sons to re-evaluate and revisit his life and origins. 

That said, "The Tree Of Life" is not about resolving a story, nor does it contain a "standard" story in the formal sense.  Yet it is unabashedly about thought, contemplation, investigation and meditation, something missing from a lot of the most well-intended American film dramas.  As a method or process Mr. Malick as a writer has never truly indulged in standard plot points.  There are more obvious "plot" points in Malick films like "Badlands" but even more so than before narrative is not a part of the new film's equation.  "Days Of Heaven" may be the most beautiful of Mr. Malick's films but "The Tree Of Life" is as beautiful, absorbing and thoughtful as any film you'll see in 2011.

Thought -- about God, the DNA of life and its whys and hows, and the struggle for reconciliation between the natural and parental influences within -- flows as the singular or overarching character of "The Tree Of Life", permeating the mind, traveling across the film's epochs and ages like a whispering, marinating nugget of conscience. 

"The Tree Of Life" isn't so much showy as it is ruminative.  The visualizations are an accompanying thought in and of themselves.  The fact that a narrative is absent enhances, not diminishes, the idea that the filmmaker is absolutely sincere about his art and its motivations.  Mr. Malick continues to use images in such a supremely efficient manner: none of the images are on screen longer than they need to be, and they are no less necessary than are the actors in the film.  Nor do the images subsume the actors.

Brad Pitt as Mr. O'Brien and Hunter McCracken as young Jack in "The Tree Of Life" .  Merie Wallace/Fox Searchlight

Mr. Malick, known as a very shy, reserved and deeply sensitive soul, asks the questions which can be anxiety-ridden yet doesn't represent the issues behind those questions in an anguished fashion.  Some filmmakers would have gone down a path of having to use images illustrating anguish, anger and confusion, or would have employed a frenzied, unruly style or asked their actors to play frustrated, beleaguered beings weighted down in existential crisis. 

Questions about existentialism are present in "The Tree Of Life" but the exploration is a cerebral exercise, not a purposefully orchestrated variable outwardly shaped by the performances of the film's actors, who are often distanced in a same or different time and place from Jack in his younger and older editions.  The distance is shrewdly exemplified by Mr. Lubezki's distinct camerawork. 

A lot of things you glimpse in "The Tree Of Life" may make no sense at all.  Then again, life makes no sense either: the events that happen in it, the things that shape it, the pains that define it, the truths that enhance it and the love that protects it.  There is however, purpose in life.  And Jack tries to find it, even as he is tempted by the opportunity to find death instead.  Above all, Jack seeks peace, peace in his own heart and soul.

At all times "The Tree Of Life" is as fragile as the questions that pepper it.  Throughout, Mr. Malick journeys through this difficult and challenging terrain with great sensitivity.  He gives the viewer time to breathe and reflect.  The film is neither pretentious nor glamorous.  "The Tree Of Life" is as gentle, bright, cloudy and moody as the ever-changing weather.  Each image in it floats and bursts with life, including the most innocuous or sobering visuals.  What you see is absolutely awe-inspiring.

So just how do you make a two hour-and-20-minute film about life and its whys and hows, and make it transfixing, thought-provoking and sustaining entertainment?  You take chances as Mr. Malick has done, making a film that is akin to Derek Jarman's "Blue" in some of its intonation and poetry but is more alive with movement, light, involvement and far greater scope, animation and scale even as it remains as personal and intimate as Mr. Jarman's film.

Laramie Eppler as R.L., Jessica Chastain as Mrs. O'Brien and Hunter McCracken as young Jack in "The Tree Of Life" . 
Merie Wallace/Fox Searchlight

For all its free-associational imagery "The Tree Of Life" is always talking to us as an audience literally, and in conventional ways.  Whispering voices, often barely audible are always talking to us.  There is very little technology present, no TV, which was born in the 1950s, and barely a radio to be heard.

With any film, especially any well-executed one, which "The Tree Of Life" is, the range of possibility of interpretation is endless.  Since Mr. Malick doesn't designate a peculiar strain of logic we are left to sort through the palette of indelible visions.  (Other than Mr. Penn's Jack there's no real back story for the other characters.)

"The Tree Of Life", another impressionistic Malick collage that will gain more respect in a decade or two, got me to think, contemplate, and not do so solely for the sake of the movie, but also for my own life, family and the precious people in it.  I couldn't help thinking about them as I watched this extraordinary film.  Neither Mr. Malick nor his film take life for granted, and "The Tree Of Life" shows us that life, in all its cruelty and vitality is always present and breathing around us.

With this special film Mr. Malick appears to be saying: talk about life, take time to value life and enjoy it, for it is brief.  Question the ways of life, yes, but make love the center of your soul and appreciate life all the more in the process.  Life will go on, as will love, long after we're all gone.  This is a film that demands repeated viewings and even deeper contemplation.  "The Tree Of Life" is an instant classic, and classically beautiful Malick.

With: Laramie Eppler, Tye Sheridan, Fiona Shaw, Cole Cockburn.

"The Tree Of Life" is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association Of America for some thematic material.  The film's running time is two hours and 18 minutes.  The film opens in New York and Los Angeles on Friday, San Francisco and elsewhere on June 3 and across the U.S. and Canada on July 8.

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