The Tree of Life

The creation of the universe & the essence of life in 139 minutes
The Tree of Life

Written and directed by Terrence Malick. Starring Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, Jessica Chastain, Hunter McCracken, Laramie Eppler, Tye Sheridan, Fiona Shaw, Jessica Fuselier, Nicolas Gonda, Will Wallace, Kelly Koonce, Bryce Boudoin, Jimmy Donaldson, Kameron Vaughn, Cole Cockburn, Dustin Allen, Brayden Whisenhunt, Joanna Going.

Also opening this week:

The Tree of Life, which tackles no less a subject than the creation of the universe, and the condition of life within it, is director Terrence Malick´s most ambitious and challenging film to date. And quite possibly his very best. Beautiful, poetic, and heartrending, capturing the essence of life like few films before it, I doubt I´ll see a better film this year.

It´s a non-linear, nearly non-narrative film that has no direct comparison in the world of mainstream cinema; in ambition, in has been compared to Kubrick´s 2001: A Space Odyssey (it also shares a link to that film in special effects guru Douglas Trumbull) but the effect of the film is really quite different. The closest match I can come up with is to Godfrey Reggio´s Koyaanisqatsi, which used breathtaking images propelled by a Phillip Glass score to tell its story of life on Earth.

But that´s not quite right, either: there´s the semblance of a narrative here, in that we follow the members of the O´Brien family. At the beginning, in the mid/late 1960s, Mr. & Mrs. O´Brien (Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain), in suburban Texas, are informed of the death of their son via telegram. Then we flash-forward to present day, where Jack O´Brien (Sean Penn) is a Houston architect working at a major firm; he seems to be remembering previous events.

And then – wham – we´re at the creation of the universe. The big bang. Earth. Volcanoes erupting, the primordial sea. Life. Dinosaurs. A beached plesiosaur examines its wound. A velociraptor stumbles upon an injured prey and seems to…feel compassion?

At this point, the film may have lost you; over in the US, there have been numerous reports of walkouts and refunds, with some cinemas going so far as to post “Warning: Terrence Malick Film” signs at the box office. I´m sure most of the walkouts occurred during the first half hour, with the film at its most decisive. Even I was questioning the extent of Malick´s vision, and if the remainder of the film might turn into an endurance test.

But then we move forward to 1950s Texas and the creation of the O´Brien family: Mom and Dad and Jack (Hunter McCracken), then R.L (Laramie Eppler), and Steve (Tye Sheridan). And the following 90 minutes, which showcase the initial life experiences of these brothers as they begin their lives, feature some of the most beautiful and empathetic depictions of life on Earth that I´ve seen in a feature film. Malick captures their lives, and the specific American experience, with such detail and clairvoyance that he transcends the medium and seems to be walking you through your own memories.

The experience of The Tree of Life is hard to describe: we see beautiful documentary-like images on the screen, hear hushed, whispered narration and classical music on the soundtrack, and everything seems disconnected; we´re supposed to fill in the gaps in the narration. It´s a lot to ask of contemporary audiences, subtlety a lost art in mainstream cinema. Those that pay close attention will be deeply rewarded by a film that moves almost too fast, and look forward to additional viewings to uncover more of its secrets. Those that don´t will find the film unbearably slow.

But what is undeniable is the beauty and care that went into the making of this film: the production design by Jack Fisk (There Will Be Blood), cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki (Children of Men), the original music by Alexandre Desplat amongst a carefully chosen arrangement of classical pieces (including Smetana´s Má vlast), are all faultless. As with much of Malick´s work, this was a film developed in the editing process (I hear the director is preparing a significantly longer cut) and no less than five top editors aided the director in delivering a coherent 139-minute feature.

The ‘performances’ in the film are breathtaking: Pitt, Chastain, and (particularly) McCracken are achingly real. Penn doesn’t have enough screentime to make a comparable impression.

In a career spanning nearly 40 years, Malick has only made five feature films: prior to Tree there was Badlands (1973), Days of Heaven (1978), The Thin Red Line (1998) and The New World (2005). Surprisingly, he´s got another in post-production – but if the post on that is anything like the post on The Tree of Life, we can wait at least a couple more years. His previous films have divided audiences to some extent, but even if you didn´t interact with the artistry of the rest of the film, each had a clear narrative construct that could be easily followed. Without this, The Tree of Life is his most polarizing film yet.

For the director, this was a deeply personal film: Malick grew up in suburban Texas in the 1950s, his father worked for Phillips Petroleum, and in the late 60s, his younger brother Larry committed suicide. Famously reclusive, to the point of being termed the film world´s J.D. Salinger, he wasn´t even on hand at Cannes to receive the Palme d´Or for Tree of Life.

I didn´t immediately connect with every sequence in the film – the framework with Penn as the older Jack, the final spiritual/metaphysical sequence, which is open to interpretation but will nevertheless baffle many viewers – but I so deeply reacted to the film´s midsection that it didn´t just make up for what I initially presumed to be the film´s shortcomings, but made me reconsider that assessment entirely.

With all the reports of walkouts in US cinemas, I was glad to hear no one leaving my sold-out screening at Světozor last Saturday (though sitting in the front row, I can´t be certain). But special thanks to the young Czech couple sitting next to me, stoned out of their minds and giggling like idiots (yet inaudibly, almost politely) through the entire film (save for a brief period when the guy fell asleep): you added some additional depth to the experience of watching this exceptional film.

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