Sunday, June 12, 2011

Tree of Life - Terrence Malick - just because I'm seeing this masterwork again

Tree of Life

Rating 4.5/5

Terence Malick’s audacious masterwork of cinematic poetry and extraordinary ideas is not for moviegoers who like speed, plain narrative or clearly marked arcs and chapters.   It is not for those with short attention spans or those suffering from an overabundance of sarcasm.   It is a think piece of colossal proportions, with the boldness to be what it is, a puzzling, comforting, spiritual and visual feast that spans cell division, the beginning of life, dinosaurs, babies, children and the adults they become, life’s hallucinogenic moments of clarity, our universal nature and the end of life. 

The Tree of Life appears in many places through time and space.  It is first somewhere in the cosmos in the beginning – there is lots of Biblical scripture peppered throughout the script - and then it is solidly set in a fifties southern suburbia by an old house where a mother father and three boys live.  Brad Pitt is a controlling father; Jessica Chastain is his long suffering wife.  He is “nature” – living a life based on his wants, and she is “grace” who “gracefully accepts insults and injuries”.   It’s a big concept that is repeated in two of their children, one of whom has a dark side and another who is saintly.

One of the many themes of the film is the numbness we develop as we get older.   As children, we respond to new sights, smells, touches, actions and events that come at us every day.  Our lives are constantly being enriched.  As we get older, that keenness goes away under the burden of responsibility, bad marriages, tragedies and disappointments.   Sean Penn, as the eldest son as a grown-up, is haunted by that glorious green past.  Sitting in a glass and steel skyscraper, eons away from his it, he is flooded with memories of being young and green and how he became corrupted.   It happened gradually as does his awakening, in the office, in the desert, at a mysterious doorway.

Shot in Texas, California, and Italy, the film is exquisite to look at.  Much of the film takes place inside the body, inside cells, foetuses, and nature, weather systems, earth, trees and grass.   It’s filled with the sounds of wind and birds and the movement of water which is typical for a Malick film.  There are also scenes of highly emotional dialogue that is unheard because it’s muffled or too far away. 

Tree of Life won Palme D’Or at Cannes for good reason.  It is an example of what an artist can do with film; create something completely original, something never been done before.  It offers the chance of endless opportunity that is so often frittered away by filmmakers, to make, like Malick, something altogether new, in words and pictures in the purest sense.

Tree of Life is a welcome break from the diet of mundane crap that Hollywood hands us, especially at this time of year.  It is cerebral, liturgical, visionary and otherworldly and therefore pure box office poison.  But without a doubt it is one of the most visually arresting films ever made.   Terence Malick doesn’t make many movies but when he does, they are singular works of art.

[Tree of Life opens the Toronto International Film Festival’s retrospective on Malick June 17th, a series that includes Malick’s best known films from his modest repertoire.  He has directed only 7 films since 1969.]

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