Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Tree of Life

Terrence Malick films feel like poetry. A visual poetry that encompasses a certain sense of spirituality. He takes a managable story and then pulls out its themes and somehow gives the audience a worldview, a perspective that makes the narrative we've been witnessing not just a possibility, but a universal experience. For example, take his third film, The Thin Red Line. To me, it is both a story about the WWII battle of Guadalcanal and it also deals with the inherent good and evil that can be found in just about anybody. The Tree of Life is just as poetic. It takes the story of a family in a small Texas town in the 1950s and sets that against the creation of the universe. This might be Malick's most ambitious film to date because of how the movie manages to tackle the existence of us all in the lives of just a few.

The main narrative follows Jack O'Brien (played as a child by Hunter McCracken, as an adult by Sean Penn). His parents both wish the best for him and they love each other, but they seem to have almost antithetical approaches to parenting. Mrs. O'Brien (Jessica Chastain, who has appeared in seven films this year) represents nuture. She is forgiving, ethereal, and believes the world should be presented to her children as a place of wonder. Mr. O'Brien (Brad Pitt in his most commanding of performances) represents nature. He is still loving, but is tough and believes the world can be harsh and exploitive place. We are briefly introduced to these characters before the narrative leaps billions of years backward to when the Earth was first formed in the big bang. That is where the origin of not just this story, but of humanity, begins.

Later in his life, Jack seems to be trying to reconcile his loss of innocence. He struggles to find a peace and understanding to it all, even at such a later age. Malick, cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, composer Alexandre Desplat, special effects supervisor Douglas Trumbull, production designer Jack Fisk, and an army of editors have created what is probably the meditative and spiritual film I've ever seen. I walk away from this film perhaps feeling like my life is a small blip on the the map of grand schemes, but that one's thoughts and feelings are no less important.

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