Tuesday, June 14, 2011

THE TREE OF LIFE (2011)

Written & Directed by Terrence Malick


Where & When: Arclight Cinemas, Hollywood, CA  May 27, 2011  8:10PM



I went to see "Tree of Life", only the fifth film over thirty-eight years by writer/director Terrence Malick, with my boyfriend, Dean as we were both very curious in seeing this film that just won the top prize at this year's Cannes Film Festival.

After the lights went down and the film began, I would say about thirty minutes in, Dean started shifting in his seat, then about fifteen minutes later, I heard muffled groans. I turned to him and he had a look of someone being severely punished. He soon nodded off as I quietly watched the rest of the film. Days later, Dean was still complaining about how pretentious the film was and what a complete waste of time and money.

While I certainly didn't feel as hostile towards "Tree of Life" but I also can't say that I honestly enjoyed the film either but I can say that I do admire the film as it brings together an interesting mix of dazzling visuals, powerful acting and a metaphysical style but this project proves ultimately to be just too insular for a satisfying cinematic experience.

There is no actual plot to speak of but the core of the film is the about the O'Brien family who live in Waco, Texas in the 1950's. We first meet the family when they receive the news of the death of one of their teenage sons and the devastation it causes the father (Brad Pitt) and mother (Jessica Chastain). We then retrace the family from the beginning with the birth of their first son, Jack (Hunter McCracken) and then Steve (Tye Sheridan) and R.L. (Laramie Eppler).

Their father is a frustrated musician who gave up on his dreams to start his family. He provides for them by working at a plant but after hours, he creates new inventions, hoping that one of them will be a success, bringing him fame and fortune. While it's clear that Mr. O'Brien loves his sons very much but he also wants them to become upstanding citizens, so he is stern and expects them to follow his rules without question which can lead to conflicts and discipline that borders on abusive. Their mother is much more playful and easy-going with the boys but all she can do is to watch helplessly as her husband dominates the family. Jack begins to rebel by testing his father, committing acts of vandalism and even treating his brothers cruelly.

Voice-overs throughout the film asks existential questions and offers observations regarding life, love and loss as we witness the process of the beginning of the universe and the evolution of the planet Earth. We come to a moment when dinosaurs ruled this planet as we see one dominate creature consider the fate of a smaller, wounded dinosaur.

In between all of this, Sean Penn plays the adult Jack, now an architect, who is still shaken by the death of his younger brother and is trying to make peace with his elderly father, silently reflects on his past and most likely his future.

The question remains: is "Tree of Life" a brilliant, poetic masterpiece or is it simply a muddled and self-indulgent snooze-fest? The answer, for me, is that the film is a little bit of both.

Mr. Malick offers his perspective on spirituality and his views on the meaning of life and our purpose during the relatively short period of time we are here in a way that is perplex, intriguing and  frustrating. It's clear that he had no intention of making a film that was orthodox or predictable but the ideas in "Tree of Life" don't always feel as lucid as they could have been as the way the film has been assembled together, at times, feels more random than thought-provoking.

He also brought on board a top-notch crew that helped elevate the film that includes his longtime production designer, Jack Fisk, special-effects supervisor, Douglas Trumbull who worked on Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey" and Spielberg's "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" that Malick brought out of retirement after thirty years to work on "Tree",  a team of five editors who managed to make the film look seamless and the cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki whose great work here will most certainly be remembered during award season.

Mr. Pitt, who is quite impressive in this film, headlines a terrific cast with special mention should be made about the transcendent performance from Ms Chastain and newcomer McCraken who is perfect as the young Jack. Mr. Penn doesn't have much screen time nor has much to say but his brooding presence adds much weight to the film.

"Tree of Life" may be difficult for many to embrace and certainly not easy to comprehend but there is no denying the emotional power that is found in several moments in this flawed but intriguing film. There are many possible interpretations of this film, so try to go in with an open mind and you may be surprised at what you may leave the theater with.