Sunday, May 29, 2011

The Tree of Life

Despite having a monumental idea that has all the makings for a project that never gets made, “The Tree of Life” satisfies the grand reach that it sets for itself. It may not give a universal look at the growth of the world and of humanity, but that’s because it can’t: Terrence Malick is an American, Christian filmmaker and thus can only be expected to filter his story through that sort of lens. But even if he’s unable to make the film that everyone wants, what he’s done here is simply unbelievable.

Overwhelming is a dramatic understatement when describing “The Tree of Life.” The audience watches the universe meld together, with ripples, explosions, and, to be certain, dinosaurs. All of this would be enough to blow anyone’s mind completely. But it doesn’t end there: we also see childhood, and every influence by which it is affected. If this childhood seems too idealized, then that’s because it is supposed to be: it’s the product of memories.

These memories are subjective and objective, and the whole film, both in its design and in its action, is about the meeting between these two POVs. There are often dolly shots through houses, or into trees. These seem to be depicting the presence of God, as he moves through the world, watching. I originally thought these shots didn’t have a purpose in the film, but they ultimately are very important.

The movie starts with something that seems to throw it off, which I realized in hindsight was the intention of the brilliant structure by Malick. After a biblical quote (from Job) and a motif of light that appears a few times in the film, we are shown some important passages that color our understanding of the rest of the movie. Mrs. O’Brien (Jessica Chastain), the mother in a small-town post-WWII family, narrates the differences between the forceful nature and the passive grace. This is over a flood of images, which at this point are frustratingly incomprehensible. She then finds that her second son, R.L., has died in a war (implied to be Vietnam), depicted with a chillingly executed shock cut between violent sobbing and airplane propellers. We then move to the present where Jack (Sean Penn), her oldest son, is having problems keeping interest in his wife, his job, and his world (“gone to the dogs,” he calls it in a perceptive moment). He has apparently said things he didn’t mean about his brother’s death, which happened very long ago, and is reminiscing about when he was a kid, egged on by his father and increasingly disillusioned as time went on.

After showing the making of the known world and giving cinema some of its most glorious images (drawing from some famous telescopic shots), Jack’s growing up is magnificently realized. We see how he became the man that he is, each pivotal moment. The resentments he (played here by Hunter McCracken) bears towards his domineering father (Brad Pitt) are most prominently noted. Hard on all of his kids, Mr. O’Brien wants them to step boldly ahead in the way of nature, not to roll with the punches as grace would (which he calls “naïve,” along with his wife). Other determining forces are seen: criminals move through the town (whom Mrs. O’Brien gives water, a symbol used to such great effect to make Tarkovsky proud), the drowning of a friend, engaging in transgressive activities. Overall, the film’s meticulous, detailed view of maturation has few, if any, peers in recent memory.

But that’s not the only area in which that happens. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who worked with Malick on “The New World,” gives one of the most astonishing performances in camerawork in cinema history. It’s the stuff to spawn thousands of visual essays. What he does is innovative and immersive: he imitates the emotion of the scene in the photography. For example, to convey Jack’s going-through-the-motions feelings as a grown man, he has the camera race through public spaces at waist level and uses a disjointed form of Snorricam (where the camera is attached to the actor, charting their movement). Also strong is the use of music (some of which is composed by Alexandre Desplat), which overpowers you. Obviously referential of Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” in how it pairs space actions with opera, it uses the music to try to reach the sublime (and it often does).

It’s a wonder that Malick can actually make another film (namely “The Burial”) after this one. This movie is a marvel, for not only all of what I’ve said above but also having one of the most believable views of the afterlife (if that’s what it is) that I’ve ever seen. (Also worth mentioning is his giving of voiceovers to many of his characters, both biblical and similar to Faulkner's "As I Lay Dying.") I’ll need to see it more than once, but it feels (though it’s definitely not) almost absolute. If it had never been made, only speculated, people could have united completely around it. Even if it doesn’t appeal to everyone, and even if it admittedly isn’t impeccable start-to-finish (the human section working better than the planetary one), it’s a treasure, worthy of its Palme d'Or and (one can only hope) more awards. A


Mark Powell said...

Fantastic review. I can't remember the last time I was this excited to see a film.

Greg said...

Just saw it today and am glad that you singled out the cinematographer. The visuals and camerawork are simply stunning.

And am I led to believe that you read Faulkner's As I Lay Dying? If so, kudos to you.

Nick Duval said...

I've only heard about the Faulkner novel; I hope to read it soon (maybe after I get through this colossus I've undertaken).