The Tree of Life Directed by: Terrence Malick Cast: Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain, Hunter McCracken, Sean Penn Running Time: 2 hrs 18 minutes Rating: PG-13 Release Date: June 3, 2011 (Chicago)
PLOT: The story of a midwestern family in the 1950's, and a boy's (McCracken) struggle to connect with his father (Pitt).
WHO'S IT FOR?: Fans of the Days of Heaven and Thin Red Line filmmaker shouldn't need any persuasion to invest two and half-hours into the latest visual opus from Terrence Malick. Moviegoers unfamiliar with his work should wear their art house fan caps and be prepared for a spiritual experience. Religious audiences are a curious gamble, as the movie does have a lot of elements concerning god and creation, but the movie doesn't aggressively associate itself with any particular religion or definite meaning.
EXPECTATIONS: Malick movies are such a rare event that even if he had directed a sequel to Delta Farce I'd be intrigued. What could a movie with such an open-ended title be about? When this film premiered at this year's Cannes Film Festival, it was met with both boos and applause. Could a movie really be that polarizing?
Brad Pitt as Mr. O'Brien: While the character might be difficult to accept for someone, the performance from Pitt does not have the same problem. Embodying a working class father with a strong belief in discipline, Pitt provides a contemplative performance that means to explore much more than just fatherhood. He is a pivotal aspect to the hopes and dreams of the era within the film, and a magnetic dose of gruff reality. Score: 8
Jessica Chastain as Mrs. O'Brien: A non-believer in the ways of tough love that her husband celebrates, this wife/mother is a compelling opposite to her husband, and a warming relief the children can turn when Mr. O'Brien is out of the house. She has some very touching moments with her sons that can be easily related to the memories we have with our own mothers. Score: 8
Hunter McCracken as Young Jack: We see every key memory in his life. At times, this becomes his story, and the newcomer McCracken does an excellent job. With his hollowed eyes and burrowed angst, it's easy to see that this character would indeed grow up to be someone played by Sean Penn. Score: 8
TALKING: An extensive speech, (or prayer, depending on how you look at it) is cut up with various voices in a voice-over that pops in and out of the story. Though the domestic scenes in The Tree of Life lend themselves more often than not to silent expressions, the dialogue in these moments is incredibly thoughtful, and most of all, human. Malick makes his dialogue between a father and a son as contemplative and fascinating as any of voice-over's ruminations about the presence of a god. Score: 9
SIGHTS: I'm not going to call cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki a god (that wouldn't fit with the whole context of this movie), but it's safe to say that this camerawork is heavenly. A large part of Tree of Life's hypnotic sense comes from its absolutely astounding visuals, which capture domestic moments with the same phenomenal framing used for the creation of the world. The style can at times be very particular, using a certain time of day or constantly trailing behind characters, but it makes the movie look absolutely perfect. As for editing, Malick makes a point to cut the family's scenes to resemble the regular longevity of a memory (with very aggressive cuts, might I add). It's an extremely resonant tactic, and it makes Young Jack's life story feel all the more full. Score: 10
SOUNDS: Powered by epic composers like Mahler and Berlioz, the Tree of Life soundtrack is a fairly spectacular mixtape to accompany the existence of all bits of life. An aspect of the jaw-dropping nature of this film is accomplished with its transcendent classical selections, which turns pieces like Preisner's "Lacrimosa" into earth-shaking pieces of music. The Tree of Life also earns its reverence by at times being quieter than an abandoned church. Score: 8
BEST SCENE: The film's scenes of the universe's creation are absolutely astounding, as presented in glorious visual effects. This only makes up for a third of the film, but it's all quite phenomenal.
ENDING: Before one more image to the recurring burning flame, in a long shot we see a bird fly away from a bridge. I'm not sure what this means.
QUESTIONS: How much connection does something like the last shot of the film have to the entirety of The Tree of Life? Is it something that should stand on its own, or does it really have great significance to dinosaurs, fatherhood, god, etc? How much is Malick trying to say about the inconclusiveness about life with a movie that can at times seem incredibly vague? Why are there are so many different family dogs?
REWATCHABILITY: I had heard this was a two-timer, and I can understand why. Not only do its visuals hold great mystery, but so does the story itself. This is absolutely a film that will cause you to ponder the age-old question, "What does it all mean?" A second viewing is quite appealing considering the seductive mystery of both the visuals and the way in which Malick chooses to arrange his story.
Some people believe the meaning of life is love. Others think that it's the number 42. Terrence Malick has his own answers, and they are buried somewhere in The Tree of Life, an extensive opus to creation that must be housing some extremely personal aspects amongst its phenomenal imagery and wide-scoped storytelling. Regardless of where they are, this gloriously labored film can at times feel so vague that it's impossible anyone but Malick understand it completely. Of course The Tree of Life is art house at its largest, (this is more colossal than anything you'd see at a planetarium, and it actually warrants an IMAX screen) but rarely can that subgenre ever feel so singularly spiritual.
Whether we can immediately comprehend it or not, The Tree of Life is the new 2001: A Space Odyssey, and it will be for quite some time. Malick's film doesn't earn this high distinction just because it features an "experimental" sequence mixed with an obscure narrative. It's also for the fact that The Tree of Life has the ability to cast spells on its audience, as its gorgeous aesthetics completely immerse the viewer into its spirit for extensive amounts of time.
FINAL SCORE: 8/10