The Tree of Life (Fox Searchlight, PG-13)

Nonlinear, ethereal, meandering, beautiful, and not always terribly easy to follow in narrative terms.



I have a history of having a special fondness for off-the-mainstream movies that big stars appear in—can you imagine being a Tom Cruise fan who goes to see Magnolia just because he was in it? Or a Julia Roberts fan who goes to see Closer? It’s nice to know that their star power helps to get films like this seen, and selfishly, hypocritically, and counterintuitively it is sort of fun to imagine moviegoers getting really upset about the film not being quite what they thought that it would be. Another great film to add to this list is the new Terrence Malick film, The Tree of Life, which of course stars Brad Pitt (not that Malick is new to working with movie stars), but is truer to the general idea of a Malick picture than either of his two most recent films were (those being 1998’s The Thin Red Line and 2005’s The New World). That is to say that it is nonlinear, ethereal, meandering, beautiful, and not always terribly easy to follow in narrative terms.

It helps that The Tree of Life is also a good film—hopefully we’ll get some converts to the idea of film as art over this one—but sadly it isn’t quite as good as I would have wanted it to be; Malick’s modern films, good though they may be, still don’t hold a candle to his original two, 1973’s Badlands and 1978’s Days of Heaven. That said, I think The Tree of Life is his most successful modern film, and is aided by its very high aspirations—it has been said by many before me that the closest film to compare it to is Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey (or perhaps Don Hertzfeldt’s 2005 short “The Meaning of Life”).

The main narrative thrust of The Tree of Life is that of the O’Brien family circa 1950s Texas. The stern patriarch is played by Pitt while the loving and gentle mother is played by Jessica Chastain, here a real presence—Malick has always been a good director of women. But Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien aren’t really the main characters as such; the main character is young Jack O’Brien (Hunter McCracken), whose eyes we see the world through, and it’s his voice we hear narrating the movie in whisper (which are often hard to make out, truth be told, though one can only assume that this was intentional). Interspersed through the movie are broad bookends that include a grown Jack (Sean Penn, who is barely in the movie despite second billing), the creation of the universe (replete with already much-discussed CGI dinosaurs, which frankly don’t look so good), and something like the end of the universe. It is of course hard to talk about these things in concrete terms when the movie doesn’t talk about them in concrete terms itself, at least not most of the time—you have to trust me to make correct assumptions after having only seen the movie once, which is maybe not a smart thing to do.

There are equal parts things to be amazed by, things to not understand, and things to think could have been handled better, but as always for a Malick film, anyone with any sense of beauty will have no trouble sitting through it—Malick is one of the undisputed masters of creating gorgeous pictures, and The Tree of Life is probably second only to Days of Heaven on this front among Malick’s filmography. Here he was aided by a new addition to the Malick visual design team, cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, best known as Alfonso Cuarón’s usual DP, and whose best-known work (so far) is 2006’s Children of Men, which is easily one of the three or so best-shot films of the past decade. I guess when you’re a filmmaker of Malick’s renown you can have your choice of who you want on your artistic team, and Malick has yet to make a poor choice on that front. | Pete Timmermann


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