Monday, May 30, 2011

T-shirts, Blue Jeans, Creation, the Universe, and the Answer to All the Questions in the World: Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life


The first thing that Terrence Malick’s new film did for me was take me back to my childhood in California during the late 50s and early 60s, when a year was an eternity, summer seemed to last forever, and much of my life was spent outside with my two brothers, dressed in t-shirts and blue jeans, playing baseball or “guns,” riding our bicycles to nowhere in particular, or wandering in the San Mateo hills, finding an old shack, and smashing panes of glass.

In The Tree of Life Malick’s screenplay and direction, as well as Emmanuel Lubezki’s stunning cinematography, masterfully capture the day-after-day cycle in the life of a family. For the story’s memorable setting, production designer Jack Fisk and art director David Crank take a residential block and a main street in a small Texas town and send them back in time to the 1950s. For a film which does not have the luxury of a novel's many pages, it is always a challenge to capture the passage of time, but in its focus on the O’Brien family, Malick vividly depicts the countless days from the birth of three boys to the endless days of boyhood in a collage of vignettes that left me feeling like I had absorbed a thousand-page novel in two hours and eighteen minutes.


In addition to all that, Malick inserts a dazzling depiction of the birth of our planet from gaseous clouds floating in space to explosive volcanoes to dinosaurs browsing in a redwood grove. Only until Malick has delineated the vast scope of the universe in which humans fall in love and make families, dwarfed by that universe, can he return to the single family that is the focus of this story.

Father (Brad Pitt) is a 50s head of the family, bringing home the bacon and asserting his authoritarian rule but sometimes boiling over into bursts of anger incited by his own frustrations. In brief shots, Pitt reflects Father’s inner turmoil, his desire to be a good father while he yearns to be a highly accomplished engineer and deals with the frustration of being an unfulfilled musician who did not follow his dream. Mother (Jessica Chastain) is the epitome of tranquility and compassion, a Christ-like figure when she gives water to a criminal who looks like he’s just been apprehended after a long chase. In a single shot Chastain exudes the tenderness that is the counter force influencing the upbringing of the three boys: Jack (Hunter McCracken), the oldest; the artistic, sensitive middle child (Laramie Eppier); and the laconic youngest (Tye Sheridan). McCracken, in a touching, naturalistic performance – the most striking performance I’ve seen all year – displays a wonderful talent for conveying worlds of meaning with a single glance or a shift in his body posture, and his mostly silent performance covers the dawning awareness and the emotions of the many years in a boy’s development.





After Jack’s birth, all the days of Jack’s life are are depicted in lively vignettes that blend together seamlessly to form the layers of a life. The many days of infancy are nicely delineated by a repeated shot of Mother turning out a bedside lamp. After the birth of Jack’s brothers, the film flies into exhilarating cinematic motion as the camera follows the boys climbing a tree, riding their bikes, throwing a ball over the house, rolling down a grassy hill, or simply lounging around in t-shirts and jeans, day after summer day. Through Jack’s eyes, we grow up again. We hold sparklers on the 4th of July; we dress up for Hallowe’en; we become aware of life's tragedies; we play on the school playground; we follow a girl home from school. We do bad things.

Following the Creation sequence, the film echoes Genesis again as Jack struggles with free will, wanting to do good things but being tempted to do bad. He can be a destructive little boy, smashing a garbage can, breaking windows on a dare. He can lust after a neighbor woman hanging her underwear on a laundry line and washing her bare legs with a hose. He runs from a sin committed, face full of guilt. The Genesis allusions continue in the depiction of sibling rivalry between Jack and the middle brother, suggestive of Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau. Similarly, Jack seeks favor from the Father, as Jacob did with Isaac.

As with Days of Heaven, Malick tells a poignant, powerful story by means of snippet scenes that might have one line of dialogue linked to another snippet by a montage of images that may hold meaning or might just be achingly beautiful. We get pieces of the conflicts that arise as Jack is torn between a mother’s compassionate example and a Father’s tough dictates stemming from an unsatisfied longing. These conflicts, in turn, make Jack the adult he becomes, a man (Sean Penn) who has achieved power and success but seeks fulfillment by letting go of his bitterness and embracing the “glory” that he turned his back on.


Adult Jack must pass through the many doorways seeded throughout the film, an image that is part of a matrix of imagery from Malick’s previous four films: a patch of sky through the treetops; grass blowing in the wind; snakes; lace curtains moving in a breeze; rivers; boys swimming underwater; a room whose ceiling becomes the sky. These are images that Malick clearly loves, images that have meaning to him, and here, in The Tree of Life, Malick bares his tender soul passionately, powerfully, sometimes tritely, sometimes inscrutably, but he boldly attempts to deal with all the questions in the world, and he leaves you with the feeling that he has nearly answered them all. Malick’s soulful exploration of all the questions in the world might take too long wandering on the beach of heaven, but I’ll allow a man his indulgence when he has the talent to capture memorable power and significance in a single image, as in one of my favorites in this film: a boy’s hand holding a wisp of dried grass on a leg clad in blue jeans, as two brothers console each other against one of life’s hard moments.

20 comments:

Jonny said...

Hokahey, nice review here and thanks for sharing your thoughts on your childhood as well. Where would you put this in terms of placement of Malick's best films? Do you think it might be his best one, or do you prefer another?

Hokahey said...

Jonny thank you very much for reading commenting. If you had asked me this question before I saw The Tree of Life, I would have said that my favorite Terrence Malick film is Days of Heaven followed by The Thin Red Line (which touches me emotionally and holds a special place in my evaluation of great filmmaking) followed by The New World and then Badlands, and yet there are times when I feel that I don't have a favorite among the top three here; I consider them all masterpieces. Perhaps Days of Heaven is his tightest, best composed construct. Now, with The Tree of Life, I don't know. I felt the most emotional connection with this film. It may be my favorite although Days is still his most perfect construct.

Kelli Marshall said...

What a lovely review. Haven't seen the film yet, but have been intrigued by all the Cannes hype/silliness/hate/love surrounding it...

Hokahey said...

Kelli - thanks for your appreciation. Before seeing this movie, I stayed away from all images, previews, and Cannes reviews, though when you surf the net you can't help picking up glimmerings, and I noticed the comment about the divided audience in Cannes: the applause vs. the boos, which really worried me. Now, I can't understand it. I can definitely understand the applause, but I don't understand the boos. One might detect some over-indulgence and some obvious metaphors, but the tender portrait of this family mitigates the rest.

Kelli Marshall said...

Yeah, usually I stay away from reviews, rumors, mumblings, etc. before I watch movies, but on the morning Tree of Life played in Cannes, my Twitter feed erupted, and it was really hard to turn away from the hoopla!

You mention over-indulgence. Sounds close to the word I keep hearing associated with the film: pretentious. Guess I'll find out when it comes to theatres around here... =)

Hokahey said...

Kelli - When I say "over-indulgence" I'm thinking from the point of view of the Cannes audience; they obviously thought that some of the imagery should have been edited more tightly or dispensed with altogether. I don't agree with this for the most part.

As for "pretentious," the film, to me, comes off as a very sincere, heart-felt exploration of the meaning of life and all things in the universe - and I don't consider that pretentious.

Malick's approach is bold but sincere and passionate; he's not being showy.

J.D. said...

Fantastic review! I am eagerly anticipating this film myself being a massive Malick fan. Hoping to see it in mid-June and write a review on my blog.

Scott Nye said...

"Indulgent" and "pretentious" are two words often thrown around about movies people don't understand and feel go on for too long. It's not that they never apply, but at least 90% of their usage is misappropriated, so unless I'm familiar with the critic, I throw out any review that tries.

Nice piece, by the by. Your description of Jack's moral compass as a child called to mind a reference that I don't think I've seen mentioned - East of Eden (the novel anyway; haven't seen the film), which spends an inordinate amount of time dissecting the desire to be good in spite of one's nature (never mind its own Cain and Abel parallels).

I am continually bowled over by Malick's ability to tell a story with so little "happening." By focusing solely on the emotions and small details, he ends up wringing something grand out of what would seem like so very little. By the end of his film, I too feel like I've taken in a long novel, or at the very least have been with his characters for years. That also makes his films feel longer than they are, but brevity is sort of an overrated quality. Who cares if two-and-a-half hours feels like four when it feels this good?

Hokahey said...

J.D. - I hope you get to see it soon.

Scott - Thanks for your comments on the "pretentious" issue.

As for East of Eden and free will, I had that included in my first draft of this post but then edited it out.

Well said here - "I am continually bowled over by Malick's ability to tell a story with so little "happening." By focusing solely on the emotions and small details, he ends up wringing something grand out of what would seem like so very little." The amazing thing is how much you learn about the family members here from the little pieces presented. It all comes together and composes a "novel," leaving so much more to talk about in regards to motivations and characterization. That aspect of the film is truly impressive.

Home Inspector Expert said...

The movie was beautiful, and possibly the best movie I've ever seen. It is not within the realm of any other movie, therefore there are no comparisons (except for maybe another Malick movie). This movie is pure emotion, it is an experience. The acting is so seamless that you feel as though what is going on is actually taking place. And yes, of course, the visuals are amazing. The cinematography and graphic effects are the best I've ever seen (I've seem a lot of movies people!). Some criticize Malick for losing grasp on the plot or veering too far away from a single narrative, but I believe that's the point. This movie does NOT have a traditional plot structure, there is actually nothing traditional about it whatsoever. You must go into this movie with an open mind, and be ready to let yourself go a little. It runs very slow, but that is the beauty. The music is absolutely breathtaking as well. I really hope you enjoy it, because it may be my favorite movie of all time.

Hokahey said...

HIE - Glad you loved this movie so much, and thanks for commenting. It is definitely "not within the realm of any other movie." That's well said. That's what makes it such a welcome sight for eyes abused by sequels and superheroes and CGI. As for the movie moving slowly - there might be some sequences that are slower than others - but I felt the whole thing moving along expeditiously like a stream. There's so much motion and emotion that move it along.

Jason Bellamy said...

These are images that Malick clearly loves, images that have meaning to him, and here, in The Tree of Life, Malick bares his tender soul passionately, powerfully, sometimes tritely, sometimes inscrutably, but he boldly attempts to deal with all the questions in the world, and he leaves you with the feeling that he has nearly answered them all.

All very well said! Nice review!

Hokahey said...

Thanks, Jason. And thanks for the great weekend, seeing The Tree of Life twice in NYC. It was a memorable experience. Now, back on Cape Cod, I feel at a loss that this movie won't be opening here this Friday.

Sam Juliano said...

You did not disappoint my friend! As you well know (and have graciously acknowledged in print at my own blog) I am a huge fan of the film, and feel it's probably the best film of 2011 to this point. But the stage is yours here, and your infused every word, every sentence with passion. I feel privleged to know the back story of your trip to the Landmark Cinemas in NYC, and of how you saw this film not once, but twice over the past weekend. I've stated that Malick's abstract visual tapestry is more attuned to a symphony in music, and the film is transcendent. Great lead in with the broaching of your cdhildhood in California too.

Hokahey said...

Thanks for the comment, Sam. We have similar tastes. I love Malick's impressionistic,
"symphonic" style; I love his grand images on an epic scale; I totally appreciate how he offers us such a work of art for us to enjoy when there is so much unoriginal filmmaking out there. He gives us images to feast our eyes on, and ideas to chew on for a long time. He and David Lean are my favorite directors.

Sam Juliano said...

Lean eh?

Oh boy, again we are on the same page in a big way!

Hokahey said...

Sam - Malick and Lean both have an epic approach with dazzlingly lucid cinematography that I respond to in a big way. Glad you're a Lean fan as well.

Sam Juliano said...

Hokahey:

Our friend Jason Marshall at MOVIES OVER MATTER has also made a fantastic contribution in the Malick literature here!:

http://moviesovermatter.com/2011/06/05/%e2%80%9ctell-us-a-story-from-before-we-can-remember%e2%80%a6%e2%80%9d-terrence-malick%e2%80%99s-%e2%80%9cthe-tree-of-life%e2%80%9d/#comments

Adam Zanzie said...

It's nice to be hearing all these enthusiastic comments from people who lived through the 50's and 60's. When my dad watched the theatrical trailer, he just started laughing when he saw clips of the pesticide smoke in the streets; he told me that this used to go on in his childhood neighborhood all the time. Watching the movie itself in a theater today, I could hear some of the older adults in the audience laughing at this very same scene. Who knew Malick had a gift for nostalgia? :)

Excellent review, Hokahey. This film floored me so much that I fully intend to rush out for another viewing sometime in the next week. There were small things here and there that struck me as dubious--the [spoilers!] dinosaurs struck me as all too obviously CGI (I would have thought Douglas Trumbell could come up with better dinosaurs), and the heaven finale, as you've said here, seems a little too ambiguous.

But I probably shouldn't question anything until I'm ready to comprehend the movie in its entirety. This is the kind of complex masterwork that will take me days to fully process!

Hokahey said...

Thanks for the comment, Adam. I'm glad you enjoyed the movie and - definitely - a second viewing is in well worthwhile. I saw it two days in a row.

I wasn't bothered by the dinosaurs. I love the one on the beach - very different.

As for the "heaven" sequence, I'm thinking of it less as heaven - more as a state of acceptance, of embracing all that Jack is and was.

Enjoy your second viewing. I'm going for a third soon. It is great that Malick has given us a "complex masterwork" to fully satisfy our minds and our eyes.