Movie Review - The Tree of Life

The Tree of Life won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival. It's a very prestigious award that doesn't mean much to Americans, but I wouldn't be surprised if this film gets a slew of Academy Award nominations, including those for direction, writing, cinematography, editing, music and acting.

The Tree of Life is easily one of the best films of 2011. It is easily one of the most beautiful. It is easily one of the most rapturous films I've ever seen in my life. It is cinematic art at its finest.

The movie poster outside the theater where I saw this film consisted of 70 images, 70 tiny frames from the movie. Most movie posters consist of one image, maybe two. The grandiosity of The Tree of Life cannot be encapsulated to a few ideas or images. 70 would be a very low minimum.

The fact of the matter is this film defies encapsulation. How writer-director Terrence Malick was able to contain it to two hours is a feat in and of itself. The Tree of Life is probably the most epic film to be projected on screen in decades. It's so large in its scope yet somehow so intimate in what it actually shows. It's very wide in its reach yet somehow very narrow in what it actually touches.

In terms of craft, of what the film does, it's like a river, a cinematic river. It's sweeping visuals edited in such a fluid and flowing manner that the viewer just gets caught in it. Or else, it's like cinematic rain, and every image is like a drop of water and as the viewer you're only happy to be soaked.

The images fall from the sky not just from clouds but almost like they're from heaven. With the music, the orchestral music that opens Malick's film, it could almost be a slice of the celestial. Yet, it's not. Despite being expansive and at times transcendental, Malick's movie is very much rooted in the human experience.

It's a journey that seemingly takes us from birth to death, and not just the birth and death of one person, which it does, but also the birth and death of all life itself. Through Malick's style, that birth and death quietly explode on the screen, and the debris that flies or floats in front of us tell the story. Only, it's not as incoherent or chaotic.

There is a method to Malick's madness. The outpouring of images that run across our eyes may seem random and it may seem as far away from the traditional narrative structure as one can get. Malick cuts together what might be just a two-hour montage, but Malick is more clever and bold. Malick brilliantly delivers something that isn't overly complicated and layered, but simple and straight-forward even in his metaphors.

It's only not straight-forward in one regard. Unlike in Malick's previous films, this one literally jumps around in time and space. It jumps from the past to the present. It jumps from outer space to inner space. The majority of the time is spent with a family of five in 1950s Waco, Texas, but the movie is not beyond from sliding into present-day or back to dinosaur age.

Brad Pitt plays the father, Mr. O'Brien. Jessica Chastain plays the mother, Mrs. O'Brien. There are three sons. Hunter McCracken plays the first-born son named Jack at the age of 11 or 12. Sean Penn plays Jack in his 50s.

Mr. and Mrs. O'Brien are concerned with how their children are raised. Jack, as a boy, is concerned with testing his limits and boundaries. Jack, as a man, deals with loss and the emptiness in his life.

Loss is an important theme for the first fourth of the film. In the Oscar-nominated Rabbit Hole, two parents are coping with the loss of the child. It's well-played as none of the dialogue in the opening reel reveals that it was their child who died. Malick does a similar thing here. Except, Malick uses no dialogue at all. Aside from narration that's mostly interrogative and poetic rather than prose, Malick's characters don't speak.

Malick's direction is so brilliant that he doesn't need them to speak. Malick goes to a close-up of Pitt's face and just allows the eyes tell you everything. The characters do speak, but it's almost as if Malick doesn't even bother with a boom mic or if he does, he pushes it away. Malick goes to a close-up of Penn because again he wants Penn's face, his eyes to tell the tale.

Penn is on a cellphone, but ironically as soon as Penn opens his mouth to say something. Malick pans the camera away almost as if dialogue is meaningless or fleeting in that it's not the most important form of human communication.

Malick is more concerned with body language. How a person walks, how he moves his body in whatever environment, how he or she emotes or how he or she tries not to emote, that's what matters to Malick. Instead of making sure a boom mic is properly placed, his camera is more concerned with following his characters and capturing what their auras say.

This is why performances from all the actors, particularly Pitt and Chastain, are so profound and powerful as to convey the loss of a child, the devastation and heartache of that with little to no words, as well as little to no action that's too theatrical or over-the-top. Even though the actors never say what their feeling, visually, Malick gives clues like shots of a setting sun.

Malick at times uses symbolism like that to get into his characters heads. Other than that, his craft is basic but yet he gets into the minds of men better than any filmmaker. It may seem simple, but Malick merely follows his characters and he does so mainly handheld, loose and free. It's never shaky but constantly moving, constantly following, almost chasing his subjects. But, because he's able to get into their heads, Malick's film is like a telepathic documentary.

For his main character of Mr. O'Brien, it is perhaps the best character Malick has written and Pitt gives another Oscar-worthy performance. Mr. O'Brien loves his wife and children, but he is a stern and strict disciplinarian. His main source of conflict comes from his eldest son, Jack. Many people have commented on the performances of the child actors in Super 8, but McCracken who plays Jack is phenomenal and I would not be surprised if this young boy too got an Oscar nomination.

Jack grows increasingly wary of his father, his perfectionism and ambition, especially when it comes to success and money. Jack eventually becomes rebellious and defiant, acting out, even toward his mother who is nothing but walking grace.

It all builds to a very tense scene, one that had me on the edge of my seat, one that threatens possible and probable violence. Before getting there, the middle section of Malick's movie is an exploration of nature and the possible and probable violence that can happen in nature, even prehistoric nature.

That violence is always on the outskirts though, the perimeter of Malick's field of view. Better than an IMAX nature film, Malick mostly explores the beauty in the world, the beauty of life, its creation and vivacity. The first shot is a sliver of light, an orange sliver as if rays of the sun were beaming through a slit, the perspective perhaps of a baby emerging from a womb.

We see that shot again later and the light cascades as if through blood or water, the fluids of the birth canal. Then, Malick goes to shots of clouds. Frequently, Malick's camera looks to the sky, even to space, as if looking for God. Shots of different formations blend so easily. Quasars and supernova in space can instantly become volcanic explosions on Earth. Bubbling water near that volcanic eruption can instantly become the bubble-like microscopic structures inside a cell's nucleus.

It's as if to show that all things no matter how big or small are connected. It culminates in a scene that sees the convergence of so many things and even people. It's a scene of peace, love, forgiveness and release. It's a sheer wonder, a gorgeous wonder.

Five Stars out of Five.
Rated PG-13 for some thematic material.
Running Time: 2 hrs. and 19 mins.


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