When his parents (Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain) and older brother Jack (Sean Penn) get news of R.L.'s untimely death, Jack's memories of their childhood in 1950s Texas with a harsh, conflicted father and a mother full of grace intermingle with the beginning and end of time within "The Tree of Life."
Writer/director Terrence Malick ("Days of Heaven," "The New World") is known for taking his time with films, but his fifth must have been his most long-awaited. Hot off a Palme d'Or win at this year's Cannes Film Festival (it was supposed to debut at last year's fest!), "The Tree of Life" is a compelling film about our place in the cosmos writ both large and small. The film isn't perfect - Sean Penn is ill used and the film's closing not as well conceived as what comes before it - but Malick's ability to convey a family dynamic in a certain place with few scenes of actual dialogue is a real achievement. As always with a Malick film, the cinematography, by Emmanuel Lubezki ("The New World," "Children of Men"), is stunning, buoyed by Jack Fisk's ("The New World," "Water for Elephants") production design, Douglas Trumbell's ("2001") organic fx and Alexandre Desplat's ("The King's Speech") score.
After a quote from the book of Job, “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the Earth?” (one of many questions posited and one which Jack will respond with "What are we to you?") we hear the voice of Jack's mother stating an absolute - 'There are two ways through life: the way of nature, and the way of Grace. You have to choose which one you'll follow.' Malick has stated his purpose. He then gives us flashes of a family, scattered, learning of a death. Mother, at the O'Briens' idyllic Texas home, looks like her heart has broken. Father, looking like an IBM worker out on an airfield, is stricken, his voice informing that he criticized his son on the piano bench for the way he turned the pages. The adult Jack, whom we see in a city surrounded by skyscrapers which mirror the sky, remembers how true and kind his brother was. The camera looks up through the trees, down at childish feet, records the elongated shadows of kids at play. Jack apologizes to his father over the phone, wonders how his mother bore R.L.'s death and how he, himself, lost his brother. When his queries turn to God, Malick blasts off back into time to journey back forward from the Big Bang forward.
This sequence, which has earned the film obvious comparisons to "2001," is stirringly beautiful, with celestial images (the seahorse nebula), beginning of life from protozoa through jellyfish, the dinosaur age ('Nessie" on a beach!), volcanic eruptions, all set to Preisner's Lacrimosa (the film also features Brahms, Mahler, Bach and Berlioz). It is stirring, but the meat of Malick's film lies with Jack's memories which clearly underscore his mother's opening words. Malick segues into this with a fast forward snapshot of the O'Brien courtship up through R.L.'s birth (Pitt, fondling his infant son's foot, in wonder). Lubezki's camera weaves in and out of the house, around the yard where children play, mom hangs laundry, dad plays piano, while we hear snippets of O'Brien conversation, as if from an ancient telephone line, rising from Jack's memory. There is the everyday and not, death represented through several searing incidents - a neighbor's house fire which scars a friend of Jack's, a drowning at Barton Springs where dad takes charge, to no avail and an one oddly beautiful one as a City of Waco truck sprays clouds of DDT that the boys running after exult in. A couple of impressionistic oddities, a boy swimming out of his bedroom, mother 'wire dancing' in the front yard, suggest the emotional core of these characters, then more traditional scenes arrive that show the paternal oppression that impacts them all. Brad Pitt has never been better, despite relying on a modified version of the lower lip thrust which typified his portrayal of Lt. Aldo Raine.
Malick never lays things on too thickly - his father figure has the odd moment of grace as well, heading to the piano to accompany R.L., playing guitar out on the porch. Dad is a product of his time, a man crushed by his failure to succeed at the same level of his desire and effort and the director lets his audience deduce these things with his scattered shards of recall. If there is a false note here it is that the father has too modern an introspection at his son's death. Malick absents the father on a global business trip which allows him to contrast life only with mom as one of freedom and playfulness, and, tellingly, it is here where Jack's shame in youthful misdeeds is apparent.
Scattered throughout are scenes of Penn wandering through the desert, O'Briens shot through their Texas doorway on distant horizons and gradually Malick ends his film, presumably with all the people of Jack's life walking a beach beyond the end of time, but why is Jack presented in his adult form while everyone else is visualized from his childhood? Is this just Jack's after life? The religious tone here - praying hands, mom delivering her son to God (why now?) - seems too heavy handed after the searching questions early on. But this is also a film which can probably not be entirely settled with one viewing.
In addition to Lubezki's camera, Jack Fisk's recreation of a 1950's Texas town and Desplat's score, which achieves both the intimacy and grandiosity of Malick's vision, costumer designer Jacqueline West ("The New World," "Water for Elephants") should be called out for the boys' striped tops, jeans and Keds and the perfect dresses which help Chastain achieve her period perfect performance. Hunter McCracken makes a strong debut as the younger Jack, a slight pugnaciousness flirting around his features, which contrasts beautifully with Laramie Eppler's angelic R.L. As the youngest brother, though, Tye Sheridan is more an extra than a character. Typical of Malick, well known actors, like Penn, are left with scant screen time so it should be no surprise to see Fiona Shaw (Harry Potter's Petunia Dursley) pop up as the O'Briens' maternal grandmother for a few seconds here and there.
"The Tree of Life" is clearly a very personal film from our most reclusive director and with it, he's achieved a cinematic state of grace.
Robin gives "The Tree of Life" a B+.
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