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Jefferson Root Written by Jefferson Root
May. 26, 2011 | 2:29 PM

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With only five films to his credit in close to forty years, Terrence Malick’s work has a cinematic language all its own.  Even his debut film Badlands, ostensibly about a killer on the run, is more poetic than kinetic.  The Thin Red Line, Malick’s 1998 attempt at a war film, was uncommonly lyrical, as was The New World, his 2005 retelling of the John Smith-Pocahontas legend. His abiding obsession is mankind’s place in the natural world, so his films are filled with lingering shots of plants and animals. But even those familiar with Malick’s work will likely be startled by his latest, The Tree of Life.  Booed by many in the audience at its recent Cannes premiere, it went on to win the Palme D’or, the festival’s highest honor.  Opening this Friday in limited release, the film will likely polarize audiences in a similar fashion.

Releasing a two and a half hour film starring Brad Pitt on Memorial Day Weekend whose primary purpose is to ask What Does It All Mean is a gutsy move.  Does that make The Tree of Life a great film?  Yes and no.  The movie demands rigorous attention; and those who are willing to submit to its pull will reap significant rewards.  It’s also ponderous, pretentious, and sometimes dangerously close to collapsing under the weight of its own ambition.

The plot of Malick’s movie, what there is of it, involves a 1950’s Texas family who have lost their teenage son in an unnamed war.  Voiceover narration in this beginning section informs us that there are only two ways through life, “the way of nature, and the way of grace.”  Much of the film is centered around the childhood of the boys growing up in small town Texas with their strict father and loving mother.  The film is bookended by sequences featuring Sean Penn, who plays one of the surviving boys as an adult.  Penn barely speaks in his scenes, appearing haggard and haunted, as if to suggest that he’s never quite come to grips with the man that he’s become. 

As with his earlier films, Malick only pays the loosest allegiance to narrative structure.  Instead, there are many long diversions where we’re invited to ponder how the world began, where we came from, and where we might end up.  If all of this sounds awfully heavy, it’s meant to be.  The Tree of Life’s success depends largely on each viewer’s willingness to engage these existential questions.  The film begins with a quote from the book of Job, and is in many respects deeply religious, although not in a conventional sense.  The film stops shy of endorsing Christian dogma, but the characters spend considerable time seeking heavenly guidance.  Placing an intimate family drama against the vast backdrop of the cosmos, the film becomes an expansive canvas for Malick to explore his favorite themes. 

The Tree of Life clearly owes a lot to Brad Pitt, both financially and aesthetically.  Pitt is listed as one of the film’s producers, and it certainly doesn’t hurt Fox Searchlight’s marketing campaign that the film’s midcentury small town setting calls for the actor to appear in clean cut movie star mode.  All of the characters here are archetypes, with Pitt playing the stern father, but the actor is given more to work with than the rest of the cast.  He still comes across as a cipher much of the time, but that’s likely Malick’s intention.  Regardless, Pitt deserves credit for lending his talent and clout to this kind of adventurous material, even if the end results are mixed.

Relative newcomer Jessica Chastain doesn’t fare as well, though again the flaw lies more with Malick’s writing than with her performance.  Presumably representing the way of Grace alluded to early in the film, Chastain is asked to be nothing less than the embodiment of perfect motherhood; a tall order for any actress.  She’s also given the unenviable task of whispering Malick’s ponderous voice over, which sometimes works but often feels strained. Malick employs this technique more often than not, however, so followers of his work should be well accustomed to it by now. 

In spite of its flaws, The Tree of Life offers the adventurous viewer much to savor.  While it’s fair to say that Malick ends up in over his head, what director wouldn’t?  The film is nothing less than an earnest attempt to make sense of the human condition.  Malick’s eye for powerful images is rarely matched in American film, and his film is breathtaking from start to finish.  Shot on film by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, and aided by visual effects maestro Douglas Trumball, the film features sequences which rival Trumball’s own work on 2001: A Space Oddysey. 

The film also features some terrific naturalistic performances from heretofore unknown child actors.  Malick shoots much of the film with a sweeping camera from low angles, and the scenes he shoots of boys being boys achieve the kind of elemental power that the film strives for but misses in other sections.

The Tree of Life is a film that’s next to impossible to fully process after one viewing.  An art film in the truest sense, it’s a richly layered work which will hit every viewer differently. It’s elliptical nature may limit its commercial prospects, but there can be little doubt that this is exactly the film Terrence Malick wanted to make.  There certainly won’t be another film like it this year, which is reason enough to recommend it.

The Tree of Life opens Friday, May 27th at Arclight Cinemas in Hollywood.

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