Wednesday, 13 July 2011

The Tree of Life (2011)

Confession time: I am not one of those movie buffs who believe that the elusive director Terrence Malick is the best gift to cinema and the world since sliced bread.  I really loved his first film "Badlands" (1973) and have watched it many times since.  His second "Days of Heaven" (1978) was beautifully elegiac, but just didn't hold my attention.  There was then the famous twenty year gap before 1998's "The Thin Red Line" which completely alienated me, but then again I've written before that war movies -- however poetic they may be -- turn me off.  That film was followed by "The New World" in 2005, a beautifully filmed,  historically realistic, yet dreary Indian 'love' story made for an unknown audience.  Now we have this year's Palme d'Or winner from Cannes, rapturously received by many and demanding to be seen on the big screen.

Yes, it is a film that deserves to be seen, but one which will sharply divide its viewing audience.  There are those who will take away its amazing images and who will discuss its meaning ad nauseum.  Then there will be those who will find it difficult to sit through 138 minutes of non-story, mixed with at times nearly inaudible dialogue and voiceovers.  The film focuses on the O'Brien family of mother, father, and three young sons living in Waco, Texas in the 1950s.  Dad, played by superstar Brad Pitt (here looking drabber than ever as a period paterfamilias), is a frustrated musician crushed by his 9 to 5 work, and a disciplinarian and martinet; he loves his boys, but is unable to maintain a loving relationship.  He represents Nature in the Malickian canon while their mother, an ethereal turn from little-known actress Jessica Chastain, represents Grace.  She is treated as some Holy Mother, an Angel of Mercy, and features in Malick's occasional magic realism, floating through the air or being seen in a glass coffin a la Sleeping Beauty.  The film moves forward and back between its images of idyllic childhood days and the embittered memories of the now-grown eldest son, played by Sean Penn, who looks down from his office eyrie into the chasms of Dallas' tall towers and mourns the loss of his middle brother and his innocence.

Some twenty minutes into the film it switches from the story of these folk into nothing less than a visually striking explosion, exploring the evolution of the universe and life on earth, including some wonderfully rendered dinosaurs.  These visual effects designed by retired FX master Douglas Trumbull and magnificently photographed by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki are nothing short of gobstopping to use the vernacular.  However all too soon we return to the fragments of childhood of the O'Brien brothers.  Mixed with lovingly shot vistas through the branches of majestic spreading trees, we view their days of endless summer, spacious lawns, and boys being boys.  Just before the film's end we see the Penn character walking on what must be meant as the sands of memory, with the hundreds of characters from his life aimlessly promenading past, as he seeks his own redemption.

There is a good argument, but probably one that Malick would deny, that the film is a compilation of memories from his own childhood, scraps of remembered joy, love, loss, and forgiveness from his own years with his own brothers and his own parents in '50's Waco.  The viewer is then urged to read what we wish into the conundrum of how any mundane family's dynamic meshes into the majesty of creation.  Some critics maintain that his movie requires multiple viewings to discover and appreciate its many layers, but at this point my feeling is that once was enough and I really don't need to sit through this strange mixture of nostalgia and wonder a second time. I must say that I find it heartening that such a personal and in many ways incomprehensible movie can be commercially released to the unsuspecting public.  I fear, however, that few of them will find it the consistent masterwork that its proponents loudly proclaim. 
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