Terrence Malick is evidently a private person. He doesn’t give many interviews, so it’s hard to really know him. However, I feel I know him better after seeing his newest movie, “The Tree of Life.” The film feels intensely personal. It is a loving memory, a personal struggle, an ode to life and a spiritual journey. Malick seems like a guy I’d like to meet. If you are a film lover or just a lover of life, then you owe it to yourself to see “The Tree of Life.” It is likely one of the best films of 2011, having already won the Palme d’Or at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival.
Describing “The Tree of Life” is difficult. It’s not that the themes in the movie are difficult. It’s more that the moment one tries to talk or write about these things, their power diminishes a bit. Great art is like that. You’re better off experiencing the film for yourself.
The heart of the movie is a man’s personal struggle–his struggle relating his life to God–his quest to hold on to grace in a tough world. His name is Jack. Jack is a modern-day disillusioned man (played by Sean Penn). He has vivid childhood memories growing up in 1950’s Texas. Through his memories , perhaps also through stories in his mind told to him by his parents, we see Jack grow from an infant to a boy (portrayed by Hunter McCracken). We see his beautiful mother (Jessica Chastain) and his stern father (Brad Pitt). We see his two younger brothers (Laramie Eppler and Tye Sheridan). Jack struggles with his faith, against his natural urges and with his father’s strict parenting. Jack narrates, in a whisper, “Father. Mother. Always you wrestle inside me. Always you will.”
The film’s composer is Alexandre Desplat; however, one of the awesome surprises of “The Tree of Life” is the liberal use of great classical music, including hymns, operas, choral pieces and more. The photography by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki is sublime; the lighting is natural and beautiful. The steady cam is used to great effect: we see what a child sees when a dog barks; we chase after a toddler as he runs through the house; we rush into tall grass as brothers toss their moving bikes aside and run. But we also perch precariously above a water fall, and ease ever so slightly over moss-covered rocks. “The Tree of Life” is one of the most beautifully shot films you will ever see. The editing and sound are excellent. Every performance is wonderful. The child actors playing the three brothers (and especially McCracken as Jack) are extraordinary. It is rare that filmmakers achieve such natural acting with children. You will believe that the family in the film is a real family. But those are merely the elements of the film. Forget about them and immerse yourself into Malick’s spiritual poem.
There has been a bit of controversy surrounding “The Tree of Life.” Some have found its style disconcerting: At one point in the movie, we are treated to a visual depiction of the creation of the universe and life as we know it. Further, Malick doesn’t exactly spoon-feed his messages or a plot to us, and he takes his time with things. (The film runs 139 minutes.) Others have simply hated the film, calling it pretentious. While the film is artistic, it is actually a very earnest and honest film, more introspective than grandiose. It is also evidence of what good can happen if you give a great and talented director the freedom to make a personal, explosive work of art.
Rating 4 out of 4 stars
2011, 139 minutes, Rated PG-13, Drama