21 August 2011

The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick, 2011)

Serene, vibrant, candy-coloured, swooping images of verdant nature and the vast cosmos (even including, yup, CGI dinosaurs); vivid portrayals of childhood, brotherhood, family, tragedy, love, fear, death, and the daily minutiae of life in the ’50s in suburban Texas, featuring one of the most intimate, studied performances ever seen from Brad Pitt, and with wonderful, natural support from Jessica Chastain and Hunter McCracken (and all the child actors comprising this typical yet specific family); and the psychic and eventually real wanderings undertaken by Sean Penn as one of the now-grown boys, a present-day architect wracked with guilt and grief. Indeed, who else but Terrence Malick would even dare attempt such a staggeringly ambitious cinematic attempt to summarize all of life and wax metaphysical on ‘the way of grace’ and ‘the way of nature?’

The Tree of Life is most notable for its attempts to go both perilously near to dizzyingly far in its examination of life, the universe, and everything, going both macro in the swirling, gorgeous CGI sequences populated by planets, galaxies, waves, fire, lava, and sprawling forests and micro in its up-close examination of just one family in one place in one time. And while the sequences with Sean Penn looking lost in both tall, shiny glass buildings and dry deserts are in theory meant to be the connection point, to marry the specific with the universal, they unfortunately served not to broaden or connect but to only make things more vague and abstract. The movie’s segments are all among the most beautiful ever put on film, accompanied, in true Malick fashion, by a sweeping, classical, orchestral score, evoking all the right notes of mood and emotion; but together, they’re three great cinematic tastes that taste… less than stellar together.

Pitt is absolutely gob-smackingly intense and vital as a severely tough, severely loving father to a group of boys and husband to the radiant Jessica Chastain. It will undoubtedly wind up one of the performances of the year, maybe multiple years, and might just be Pitt’s best work to date. The scenes of family life here in this pin-pointable time and place are scenes to linger about it, to surround yourself in, and are undoubtedly the heart of the picture. Or, at least, they probably should be. Certainly Malick generously pours all his filmmaking gifts onto this part of the story, in all the best ways, resulting in a sense of intimacy and piercing emotion (it would be too simplistic just to call it ’50s-era nostalgia… there’s a striving for something even more timeless here, almost mythic) matched only by its detailed, painstaking realism and visual and aural splendour. There’s little fault to find here in these vivid scenes of family life, love, fear, and loss, and abundant wonders to be explored by those who care to venture forth.

Malick also wants, however, to go back, and forward, and all around in both time and space to chronicle the beginning and end of time, and as striking as his mostly computer-generated visuals are here (of planets and stars and galaxies and violent weather, crashing seas, molten lava, and general upheaval… and, oh yes, dinosaurs) and as soothingly lovely the musical accompaniment, it’s all just a bit too much. His ambition is almost too great for any filmmaking to ever quite catch up to it, as truly admirable as this all is. I’m not going to call it all completely self-indulgent, because that would discount the very real visceral tug I felt during a lot of this; but it may verge on egregious, patience-testing. And one would think here that these scenes replete with nature in all her glory would be Malick’s testament to ‘the way of nature’ and would save the ‘way of grace’ stuff for later. But he does stumble in shoehorning in a rather unconvincing bit about a carnivorous dino taking pity on a fellow great lizard who is in pain, choosing not to eat it and moving on, grace infusing even the most wholly natural of encounters.

Which leaves us, of course, with Sean Penn. Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with Malick using the actor as sort of a figurehead, an allegory for psychic and spiritual and existential wandering and the whole Human quest for understanding rather than a complete, individual, really human character (such that Pitt so resoundingly embodies… although he too is not without allegorical significance, he transcends being merely allegorical). The thing is, the star seems just too huge to have such a limited, quiet, dare I say flat role and his intensity, having no outlet, just sort of transforms into an overwhelming blankness that makes the viewer lost and disconnected from latching onto these synthesis scenes (between the thesis of the all-natural world of dinos and cosmos and the antithesis of Brad Pitt and discipline and religion), which of course throws the whole equation kind of off-kilter. It’s just hard to reconcile the image of movie-star-Penn with the existential wanderer-type Penn that Malick wishes to convey, as good as that might sound on paper.

While this is hardly the full treatment such a dense and ambitious movie quite deserves, and hardly the last word on it, as I’m sure The Tree of Life will provoke endless academic discussions among loftier professorial types than myself, these have been my major thoughts on this riveting and maddening, stunningly beautiful yet excessive cinematic experience. It’s completely true that I’ve never seen anything like it, and undoubtedly the very real effort Malick put into it makes it perhaps the truest, most Malickian Malick film (un vrai film de Malick, as the auteurist theorists might say) ever, and an extraordinary thing to behold despite my misgivings. Malick has a lot to say here, and if my theory holds, the man seems to favour the ‘way of grace’ over the ‘way of nature,’ if only when it comes to cross-dino relations. And while I’m all for viewpoints that differ from my own, rather atheistic ones, I’m not sure he said it as well as he could have, despite saying plenty and trying to say even more. Composed of stunning parts, it’s just a bit too inconsistent as a whole. B-

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