By Matt Brunson
THE TREE OF LIFE
DIRECTED BY Terrence Malick
STARS Brad Pitt, Sean Penn
Terrence Malick's latest cinematic meditation, the Cannes Palme d'Or winner The Tree of Life, is a movie that's probably easy to hate and almost impossible to defend. Detractors will be quick to label it pretentious, which seems unfair to me pretentious denotes insincerity, and Malick is nothing if not genuine in his attempts to use the motion picture medium as a means with which to explore subjects that are important to him. For whatever faults some viewers might find with his works (boring, pointless, unfocused), no one can ever accuse him of cold calculations or cynical compromises, the modus operandi of too many of today's stateside filmmakers.
Malick, whose cinematic sensibilities have always been more closely aligned to European masters like Ingmar Bergman and Federico Fellini than to homegrown counterparts like Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg, has made his most elliptical film yet, a mood piece of a movie that grapples with all of the capital-letter issues: Life, Death, God, Nature, and about a half-dozen you care to add. It's a movie that's both universal (literally, as in the creation of the universe) and personal (the birth of a child), and its neatest trick is that it feels like a Malick autobiography even as it directly speaks to receptive viewers on a one-to-one basis. It's cinema as a give-and-take relationship: The movie can only provide as much as the viewer is willing to put into it. It bears some comparison to 2001: A Space Odyssey, and while it's no masterpiece in the vein of Stanley Kubrick's senses-shattering sci-fi epic, it shares some of its mysteries as well as a comparatively sober look at humankind's place in the cosmos.
It wouldn't be accurate to state that the movie starts with a bang, since the much-discussed Big Bang sequence only occurs after we're introduced to the leading characters. But when it does arrive, it's a stunner, a transfixing, extended sequence encompassing enough in its look at Earth: The Early Years to include dinosaurs. Only after this bravura set-piece do we settle down with the centerpiece family residing in Waco, Texas, in the 1950s. Mr. O'Brien (Brad Pitt) is the stern patriarch, a man who loves his family but nevertheless takes out all of life's frustrations on them. Mrs. O'Brien (Jessica Chastain) is the beatific mother, full of love, grace and charity. Jack, the oldest of their three sons (well-played by newcomer Hunter McCracken), is inevitably torn and molded by the conflicting behavior of his parents, and, as with any person, his childhood is carried with him into adulthood, where a grown Jack (Sean Penn, effective in a small role) grapples with all sorts of memories, not least the painful thoughts of the brother who died too young.
For those who can get on its wavelength, The Tree of Life will feel like a godsend (more so given its religious content); others will be bored by a slowly paced tale that allows the film to clock in at 140 minutes. Personally, I never found it dull, but the lengthy running time does make it easier to note just how humorless Malick can be. For a movie that vividly conveys the human experience with all its messy emotions, the film captures the stirrings of the heart and the brain but has a hard time locating the funny bone (especially in its ofttimes leaden dialogue), an omission that sometimes gives the piece a constrictive air. Alfred Hitchcock once stated that drama is life with all the dull bits cut out, but Malick reworks it so that his picture is life with all the amusing bits cut out. (I tend to side with Woody Allen, who once opined, "I'm thankful for laughter, except when milk comes out of my nose.")
Ultimately, though, this is a minor quibble, and one likely to fade as more time passes and the requisite follow-up viewing arrives. Because with the exception of The New World (my least favorite Malick to date), I've seen the reclusive auteur's other pictures (Badlands, Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line) at least two times apiece, and all were even better on repeat visits. Given this pattern, a second helping of The Tree of Life sounds like a winning proposition indeed.