Friday, May 27, 2011

THE TREE OF LIFE




Terrence Malick is one of the most celebrated and talked about directors among the film community. Love them or hate them, his movies are always visually spectacular. Since 1973, he's made only 5 films (including this one). I have seen all but one, DAYS OF HEAVEN (1978). His first film, BADLANDS, I haven't seen since film school, but I remember really liking it. THE THIN RED LINE meandered too much for me, and had way too many superstar cameos to the point where it became distracting. I did like the middle 80 minutes of that movie though, cause Nick Nolte rocks! His last film, THE NEW WORLD, I felt was a very poetic and beautiful film.

Now, 6 years later, his fifth creation has been released. THE TREE OF LIFE is easily the most ambitious thing he has ever done (or almost anyone for that matter). It has already divided critics and audience members, and is sure to be the most talked about film of the year. The reason for that is because this isn't a traditional film. Traditional, meaning it has a beginning, middle and end... or any sort of narrative structure at all. Malick is not concerned with conventions, or making sense in a linear fashion. He made a film that will make audiences work for that cinematic experience. He made a film that, depending on what mood you're in, is open to all sorts of interpretations.

I'm reluctant to describe the plot of the film, since there really is no plot. Not really. I'll do my best to explain it, though the story is only secondary. It involves a family growing up in a nice suburban neighborhood in the 1950's. Brad Pitt plays the father, Jessica Chastain is the mother. They have 3 boys, and the film has various scenes of them learning and experiencing things (loss, love, pain, fear, death), and how they communicate (or don't communicate) with their each other. There are also a few scenes sprinkled throughout that shows the oldest boy grown up (Sean Penn), dealing with the loss of one of his brothers. These moments are bookended with images of the beginning of the universe and life on earth (including a section featuring dinosaurs). All of this combined, creates one of the most unusual and unforgettable movie going experiences I've ever had.

Like I said, there's not a real structure here. The movie opens with a series of random images including the cosmos, waterfalls, Brad Pitt getting a sad phone call, and Sean Penn looking lost. Afterwards, we get a beautiful recreation of the beginning of time. It's about 15-20 minutes long, and is just a spectacular piece of cinema in it's own right. The dinosaur effects are pretty amazing, even when compared to JURASSIC PARK. But it's even more effective here since there's such a dramatic weight to the scenes. This is all set to a most excellent score by Alexandre Desplat.

After that breathtaking sequence, the bulk of the film focuses on Pitt's family in the 50's. Showing them get their first kid, and watching them grow up. It shows through various moments how the family survives. Cause essentially, this is what the film is about (at least to me). Survival. Survival on the most primal level. That's why I think they included that dinosaur scene, to show the comparisons between creature and humans. There really isn't a difference. We are here to survive, no matter what. I have never seen a film about growing up that shows what seems to be a normal family, surviving the way animals do. Cause we are all animals. It doesn't humanize anything. The film goes through all of the emotions in the most simple and animalistic natural way. The ending is about a journey's end and can be interpreted in a many number of ways.

It's hard to explain just what the movie is. The 2 films I can compare it to are 2001:A SPACE ODDESSEY, and (especially) KOYAANISQATSI. There is very little dialogue, and when there is it's usually in voice over. What the movie does instead of spelling everything out for, is show you a series of images set to music. It's like a visual symphony. And just like a piece of classical music, there's not really a story. But it exists to evoke emotions from you.

The performance that stands out the most is Brad Pitt as the father. He's a tough man, but it would be unfair to call him a bad husband or even abusive. He has faults just like everyone and his character is very exposed here. Pitt embraces the honesty of the character and commits to it 100%. I would like to see him nominated for Best Supporting actor this year. Jessica Chastain is quite memorable as the mother. She doesn't do much besides play with her children and cry alot, but she's very essential to the film. I felt like she represents pureness and innocence, while Pitt represents the hard truth of life. Another standout is Hunter McCracken as Jack, the oldest son. He actually looks like he was born in the 50's, and gives a raw and natural performance that strikes all the right notes. Sean Penn as the older version of Jack, doesn't have much to do besides wandering around, looking befuddled. But I don't see that as a problem. The actors don't really play characters. There really is no characterization. Instead, the actors are used as instruments to evoke feelings from the audience through a series of beautiful images.

The cinematography is absolutely stunning and is easily the frontrunner to win that Oscar this year. Lots of handheld and stedicam work, but none of it is shaky. It's very fluid and smooth, but also close up and intimate, making you feel like you're right there. Some images are so beautiful, at times I wasn't sure what I was looking at. Lots of abstract photography. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki films things so uniquely, that even the most common object can seem strange and foreign. The movie is just breathtaking to gaze at.

TREE OF LIFE is one of those films that you have to be in the mood for. Depending on the day I was having, I can see myself having numerous different reactions to it. But on the day that I saw it, I absolutely loved it! It's an experience. One that has to be seen on the biggest screen you can find. This is NOT a home viewing film. I felt like I was on a journey. It's very spiritual and if you're looking for it, lots of religious references, but I didn't think it was in your face. As the film unspooled, I found myself going through every emotion that one goes through life. And it was because of how the images played out, mixed with the editing, music, acting, photgraphy... everything.

Terrence Malick has created one of the bravest if not THE bravest film of all time. I applaud him and Fox Searchlight for getting this film into theaters. It's a movie that's most likely going to have alot of walkouts. I can just see average filmgoers wanting to see it JUST because Brad Pitt is in it. But once they realize that the film has a freeflowing narrative structure, and doesn't spell everything out for you, they'll be outraged. If you're not used to seeing experimental films, this could be quite jarring for you. But that's what this is: an experimental film. If you're not ready to give one a chance, you might not want to see this. But if you have any kind of love for pure art, and are open to new and unexpected experiences, this film is not to be missed!

In a year that has been mostly disappointing, I'm happy to say that THE TREE OF LIFE is the year's best film so far. It's not an easy film. It's challenging. It has flaws, but I found the flaws to also be part of the film's strengths. I saw a few reviews stating that this film isn't very good at telling a story, but I don't think that was Malick's goal. At least, not a linear story. Like I stated before, it's a series of images made to evoke emotions and thoughts from the viewer. Mission accomplished. Everyone will take something different from it, and depending on when they see it in their life. This film is a cinematic triumph! Terrence Malick's masterpiece!

**** (out of ****)

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