In 2010, there was word that Cannes was holding up announcing their slate in hopes that Terrence Malick‘s Tree of Life would be ready in time. Cannes got Tree of Life- where it recieved some boos and won the Palme D’orbut a year later, as Malick and company were still deep in post-production. Most filmmakers have scant months (and sometimes weeks) to do their post-production, but such lengthy tinkering with the final cut is part of the legend of Terrence Malick, a mercurial talent who’s proved more productive over the last ten years than he had for the first thirty of his career. Tree is Malick’s fifth film, and easily his most personal. It goes out on limited release this weekend…

The Players

Director/Writer: Terrence Malick

Stars: Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain, Sean Penn, Hunter McCracken

Cinematography by: Emmanuel Lubezki

The Story

The film begins from the perspective of the mother (Chastain), who briefly recounts her childhood, and then is faced with the death of one her children (some have suggested it was suicide, the period of the film and the telegram suggests a war-related death). The film then moves to the viewpoint of Jack (Penn), who lives in the present time and reflects on his childhood (where he’s played by McCracken) and his brother, which then leads to him thinking about the creation of life on Earth (yes, there are dinosaurs). His father (Pitt) is temperamental and obsessed with doing better, but also with a sensitive side – he plays the organ at church, and loves his classical music. The film presents the memories and thoughts of the experience of growing up in Waco, Texas in the 1950′s in the context of life’s eternal questions.

The Good:

  • The Cinematography: Working with Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki for the second time, Malick and Chivo have mastered the look they want. The film was shot with steadicams and using nothing but natural light. The thought process for period films has long been to go with an amber hue, as if the past has yellowed like old newspaper, but natural light proves just as evocative – especially for childhood. There is a great logic to that: Childhood has no artificial lights. Regardless, the look of the film helps create the right tone.
  • Malick is Aiming for the Fences: Terrence Malick has been working on this film in one form or another for most of his career. In Tree of Life -  instead of putting his themes and concerns into a genre piece or exploration of history – he decides to make a film that seems largely autobiographical (it’s hard to say how much as Malick no longer gives interviews). Regardless, this is Malick at his most pure – for better or ill – and from the questioning narration to the elliptical style, this is the work of someone who is putting it all out there. Some have been annoyed by the lack of humor (there are funny bits here and there), but the tone is right – this isn’t a standard film in any way. By connecting a single life to the creation of the cosmos, the film wrestles with what it means to be a kid, what it means to be a son, what it means to exist, and what there might be in the next world or life. Compared to something like The Hangover Part II, this is something entirely removed from modern cinema, but even in the context of our great artists who eschew more commercial enterprises (like, say, David Lynch), this comes across as both singular and the natural extension of what Malick’s been building to in his career.
  • The Singularity: America has had its experimental filmmakers, but it’s hard to compare Tree of Life to anything by Stan Brackage. The easiest analogy is probably Stanley Kubrick, and his 2001: A Space Odyessy, but where that film doesn’t explain itself neatly, it’s a different beast entirely. Other comparisons (to either the work of Andrei Tarkovsky, or Gaspar Noe’s recent Enter the Void) only point out the differences in approach. There is no real mystery to what’s on screen, but how sequences fit together and what is to be taken is up for grabs. The fun of the film is putting those pieces together. I watched the film twice, and on second pass, the film coalesced in ways it hadn’t before – when you’re dealing with a filmmaker working in a language that is either never or rarely on the big screen, it’s that much harder to know how to read that film. To that end, the film has a number of key symbols, from the flame that opens the movie and repeats a couple of times in the film, to the attic where it is at one point empty and at another point has a young kid riding a tricycle and a tall man who barely fits in the room. What does this mean? The film doesn’t tell you. Some may see it as weirdness (and there is a creepy clown in the film, though what childhood didn’t have one of those?) or pretension, but it can just as easily be read as symbolism, where the attic (which none of the main cast enter) represents a moment in a child’s life where one is torn between remaining a child and growing up. Of course, that’s just an interpretation. Some images (like a child emerging from water as a baby is born) are more obvious. There’s moments of great poetry – like shots of the mother floating in the yard – that have lingered in my memory longer than most films. But Malick’s choice to not tell a narrative with the standard three-act structure means that many are going to bored with the wistful imagery that builds but doesn’t do so through a standard plot.
  • Brad Pitt: Pitt does some of his best work in this film. He transforms himself into that strong father figure who’s filled with violence, doubt, resentment and love. But like many Malick performers, his look is perfect. When he’s wearing glasses and has that old man’s crew cut, he becomes that father figure.
  • The Children: Child actors are difficult, but the people Malick got for the children, especially McCracken and Laramie Eppler as the ill-fated brother, have a great realism on screen. Sure, they act like Malick protagonists, but as McCracken comes to understand morality and sexuality, you are never conscious of him acting. And when there’s a group of boys running around and destroying things, it feels so right.

The Bad:

  • The Roarshach Approach: Though I can say I was “entertained” watching this movie, this is not – as should be evident by now – a film that is like anything else that’s going to be released by a major studio this year. Critics have been divided on this one, and so will audiences – even some Malick die-hards don’t care for the movie. Boring, like funny, is in the eye of the beholder. None of this is a knock against the movie but with a film this vast and challenging, insta-reactions are going to cover the map. But great art doesn’t always congeal immediately. After a second pass I felt like I had a better handle on what I was seeing, but on first pass I was blown away, and slightly confused. Does the film add up? Does it need to? If most cinema is done in prose, Malick wrote a poem of a movie, and with anything so outside of the normal context, it’s that much harder to dissect. To that end, I’ve given a number of Tarkovsky films a look, and have never warmed to them, even if I know something is there. This is a terrible movie if you want to go just for a couple hours of escapism, but as an experience, it’s indelible.
  • Expectations: They’re a hassle. For those looking for a lot of Sean Penn, you’re going to be disappointed, and few films like this grab you by the short hairs and scream “You’re watching one of the greatest films ever made!” The film is a meditation, as such it’s pleasures are going to be more quiet. Than, say, Christopher Nolan at his best.

Overall:

Tree of Life left me shaken, somber, thoughtful, and reflective. There are shots in this film that are magical, that made a mark on me. This is a film that I will revisit again and again – as I have most of Malick’s films -  and though it’s hard to say if this is one of the greatest films ever made or anything like that right now, it’s a strong work that will be remembered and championed long after the majority of what came out this month (or any month this year) have been forgotten.

Score: 10/10

Tree of Life hits New York and Los Angeles May 27. The film will start expanding shortly thereafter.