The Tree of Life (2011)

June 9, 2011 § Leave a comment

Jessica Chastain and Brad Pitt as stern parents in 1950's America in Terrence Malick's opus on existence, "The Tree of Life"

Written and Directed by Terrence Malick

Starring Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain and Sean Penn

Terrence Malick spent 3 years editing this film and its evident in the final product.

Malick seems to do the same thing in every one of his movies- lots of amazing handheld cinematography, a haunting classically based score, spliced up performances with very little linear movement in the story as we take in the world he presents through whispers and moments, listening to characters speak in hushed voice overs, asking philosophical questions and making vague statements pertaining to the meaning of life.

The Tree of Life is no different. This time, in stead of the Pacific Theater of World War 2 or the shores of Roanoke Island on the eve of Englands discovery of America, we get something both smaller and larger. The smaller part is the story of a family in Texas. A stern but loving father (played by a brilliant Brad Pitt), a quiet and loving mother (played by Jessica Chastain in a mostly physical role), their multitude of young children (strong performances by a brood of unknown tweenage actors) and then glimpses of past, present and future, both of the family, the world and the universe.

It’s a spectacularly photographed film with some of the strongest cinematography I have ever witnessed, to go along with the haunting score and some intense performances that rely on strong physical acting over the relatively sparse dialogue. Malick is showing us the smallest of evolutions- that of an average American middle class family in the 50’s- juxtaposed with the history of the Universe and a hint of what may come in death. He utilized NASA and some of the world’s top scientists to advise him on the sequences pertaining to the larger message of the film, so prepare to be wowed. He’s combined Hubble Telescope Images with Jurassic Park and made it a glorious symphony well worth seeing on the big screen. It’s an intense experience that will conjure up a range of reactions, from feelings of beauty and awe, to visceral sadness and then wonderment at Malick’s ability to craft a meandering, non-linear story that still captivates us.

Malick does so many esoteric things with his movies that in less sure hands would feel gimmicky and pretentious but through Malick’s eyes we see a true, singular vision and meditation on life. Some of the film is simple and glorious- boys running around playing, defying their father, learning from their parents, watching the financial and personal undulations of an average middle class family over time and then other parts are truly spell binding, in which Malick explores life beyond human existence to juxtapose that with the mundane qualities of the daily American grind. The agony of the growing universe is juxtaposed perfectly with the agony of these young boys’ childhoods as they must contend with their stern and officious father.

Brad Pitt is simply brilliant in a role that many could have attempted well, but only he can own. He is utterly convincing and relatable as a man who’s only means to raise his boys is through strict, borderline abusive disciplinary tactics, all the while knowing that perhaps his methods are excessive and unnecessary, but not being comfortable enough with the bigger picture to take the chance that his boys don’t need his iron-fisted parenting style. Think about that in relation to the life cycle, evolution and the violent history of our planet- mostly nature, not man- and you’ll see the poignancy of Malick’s depiction of this family to summarize his feelings about existence as a whole. Sean Penn shows up sparsely, playing Pitt’s grown son as he wanders aimlessly through a vast and cold corporate world. Penn’s presence in the film is fleeting and more metaphorical. It’s neither good nor bad, it just is.

It’s a gorgeous, hopeful, uplifting, thoughtful and brilliant piece of cinema and not to be missed!

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