Thursday, July 28, 2011



- The Tree of Life is one of the more interesting, ambitious movies you're likely to see in theaters this year. From legendary director Terence Malick, it's a sweeping, ambitious film that really shoots for the moon in terms of scope and thematic depth. It's a gorgeous-looking movie - a thought-provoking, contemplative piece that mixes a simple story of family and human tragedy with a cosmic perspective - cutting between slice-of-life moments and moments that take us to the Big Bang, to prehistoric times, to the end of the world. It's a fascinating, odd, at times perplexing collage of sights and sounds. And for anyone who considers themselves a film buff, it's a must-see. At the same time, however, I can't say that Tree of Life 100% clicked for me. I appreciated its ambition, but I also left feeling a bit unsure of what I was supposed to take away from the experience. Personally, I felt like Malick never quite managed to tie together his various, divergent thematics in a way that felt truly meaningful.

Tree of Life focuses on the story of a slowly-breaking-apart family in the 1960's. The story is told in a nonlinear fashion, so we see snippets from a certain period of time, but not necessarily in chronological order. That said, throughout the corse of the movie, we piece together a lot of information on these characters. We know that the father, played by Bradd Pitt, is a would-be musician stuck in a thankless day job. Money, job status, keeping up with the Joneses - all of these pressures have hardened Pitt's character and filled him with a sort of repressed rage. It's usually a quiet anger, but it does come out in violent bursts in which he tends to be verbally or occasionally even physically abusive towards his wife and sons. Pitt does an outstanding job with this character. He's never completely likable or completely unlikable - he's multidimensional - a man with good and bad inclinations - who can be a good father and husband but also can be erratic and temperamental.

Jessica Chastain plays Pitt's wife, and she too does an excellent job in the role. Like Pitt, she plays a character who has been hardened and beaten down by life to some extent. But, she also retains more of her old self - and being with her kids can still inspire her more playful side to come out.

Meanwhile, the true focus of the film are the kids of the family, chief among them Jack, played by Hunter McKracken. The young actor does an excellent job, perfectly portraying a kid in his early adolescence who is beginning to question the nature of things, and beginning to see his parents as flawed and imperfect.

To me, Tree of Life is strongest during its segments focusing in on the family. There are some terrific scenes with Pitt, Chastain, and McKracken that paint an extraordinary picture of a seemingly-idyllic family living in suburbia and the darker, more hidden cracks in the foundation that holds them together. It's strange, because it felt to me like Malick could have made one hell of a movie that just focused in on these characters and this particular moment in time. This could have been a simpler, yet potentially more effective film, if it stuck to being a story of the breakdown of a family in the aftermath of tragedy.

But Malick isn't content to keep things simple. Instead, he begins and ends the film with a framing sequence, in which we spend some brief time with a middle-aged version of Jack, set in the present day. This version of Jack, played by Sean Penn, is a bit of an enigma. What little we know about him is that he's well-to-do, some sort of high-powered, well-paid businessman - living in a fancy, modern house and married to a model-esque wife. But, the man also seems haunted, sullen - still affected by the tragedies that hit him and his family when he was a boy. I was a little taken aback, to be honest, at just how little time we spend with Penn's older Jack. He has only a few minutes of screentime, and that makes it very difficult to ge a read on him, or to draw parallels with the younger version of the character. While there are hints as to this Jack's station in life, they are vague. And that means that this key segment of the film - like so much of the movie - leaves a lot that is open to interpretation.

And that's the way Tree of Life works. In a way, it's a nice change of pace, in that the movie gives it - and you - plenty of time to breathe. My experience watching the film was that I would take in the imagery even as I was lost in my own thoughts - thinking about how the idyllic scenes on-screen reminded me of my own childhood or of people I knew. Not many films work in this way, presenting you only with the big, key ideas of the story and leaving it up to you to fill in the margins. For that reason, I think that Tree of Life is a movie that lends itself to vastly different, and very personal, interpretations. If you relate to the movie's themes of family and spirituality and loss of faith in a direct and meaningful way - if you're able to transplant your own experiences into the framework of the film - then you just might walk away from this one thinking you've seen a masterpiece. For me, I actually appreciated the more traditional segements of the movie - the fine acting from Pitt and the child actors - but I struggled to find meaning in the more abstract segments. Scenes of the cosmos, of dinosaurs roaming through a primordial earth - these were amazing visuals, to be sure. But I was just never able to connect the dots - what did dinosaurs have to do with anything else?

Don't get me wrong - I sort of get what Malick is going for here. He's showing us characters who have been struck by tragedy, and having them question God and faith. In turn, he's showing us all of the giant, epic, unimaginable things that God has done - created life, created the universe. It's a response to these characters' personal pleas and questions to God - the truth is, they are small, insignificant parts of a much larger, unimaginably complex universe, and they must accept that, well, God moves in mysterious ways and it is not up to us to know his plan.

At least, that's one interpretation. But, to me, the movie never really comes together in an impactful way. The tangents just feel too sudden, too random, too all-over-the-place, such that the movie feels lacking in connective tissue. Just when you're invested in Pitt and co., along come dinosaurs. Just when you're ready to learn more about Sean Penn and the man he's become, here we are in a Lost-style pseudo-heaven where everyone reunites and hugs and all seems to be well. The movie asks the big question of "what does it all mean?" - but the same question could be asked of this movie.

That said, this is one of the most gorgeous-looking, immersive movies out there. The small-town suburbia scenes are incredibly well-shot, and the more cosmic moments, while narratively puzzling, have a visual sense of awe and wonder that made me feel like I was a kid in a planetarium. I would love to see Malick direct a 2001-esque space odyssey, because man, he could probably create something that was visually mind-blowing.

And you know what? I also can't help but admire the sheer ambition of this movie. It reached for the stars, literally, and the end result is something wholly unique and singular - one man's vision translated directly from brain to screen. There is a messiness, a randomness to the film - a sense that Malick himself never quite knew the point he was trying to make. And at times, there is a sense of the film being too-arty-for-its-own-good. The heavy-handed, whispered narration, the repeating of certain key images over and over - it all gets to be a bit much at times. And you can't help but think of movies like A History of Violence that cover these same sorts of big ideas, but manage to do so without diverging so wildly from their core characters and framework. But Tree of Lfe is, undoubtedly, a conversation starter. It goes BIG. It strives for greatness. It doesn't quite get there, but I will say this: it's one hell of an experiment.

My Grade: B+

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