Friday, June 24, 2011


I'd heard this new film by Terrence Malick was long—too long for some—and confusingly abstract too much of the time. And I can see how some would feel that way. But... frustratingly pretentious and precious (those film student montages and lingering tracking shots etc.) a lot of what Malick does in his films can be—and he does in THE TREE OF LIFE more than ever—in the end, as is often the case with his flicks, though they evoke certain genres or classic film story lines (e.g. THE THIN RED LINE and war movies), they always push the boundaries of those familiar narratives into something never seen before.

THE TREE OF LIFE is a "family drama" about a boy's boyhood traumas and how they continue to haunt him in adulthood. In some ways it's as familiar as THIS BOY'S LIFE et. al. But it's also the story of creation—told in visual sequences that are as powerful and beautiful as anything I've ever seen in a movie—of humankind's struggle with the randomness and cruelty of "fate" amid flashes of hope and glory, beauty and connectedness... I'm gonna end up getting all abstract myself if I don't watch out.

Though there's plenty to criticize—as for me there is in all of Malick's movies, there is also plenty to priase, as in all Malick's movies. Brad Pitt's performance is one of his best yet, and I've always felt he's an underappreciated movie actor (perhaps because he's an overappreciated movie star).

I had trouble buying Sean Penn in a suit in a corporate setting, but his face has become so iconic with all its lived-in ruggedness (the deep lines almost as striking as Beckett's now) its a jarring kind of pleasure just to see it on the big screen (and I didn't always feel this way, finding, for instance, the lingering close ups in films like STATE OF GRACE an unwarranted overindulgence, but age has blessed his quirky features with a Mount Rushmore kind of solidity) (I know, I'm getting carried away to make a point).

But that may be as much attributable to Malick's amazing eye, always the foremost quality in his films, because every actor in it seems iconic, at least on the big screen (and to really dig this film you have to see it on the big screen, at least the first time—I heard an older man telling the kid behind the concession stand on my way out that it was his second time seeing THE TREE OF LIFE and he'd probably come back for a third time to grasp all the nuances he'd missed the first two!).

Jessica Chastain as the mother, Brad Pitt's character's wife, and Hunter McCracken as the oldest son (Penn's character as a boy) are also worth highlighting as not only filmed by Malick in ways that make their screen presences seem iconic too, but also directed in ways that make their performances as unforgettable as great film performances can be.

The second boyhood brother, played by Laramie Eppler gives an amazingly poignant performance, and a cameo bit as the grandmother by Fiona Shaw is memorable as she gives her usual intimidating performance.

All in all there are several reasons why this is a must see movie on the big screen, but don't go for an escape, it's anything but, and don't go for any laughs, those are mostly strained if present at all. Go for the visual impact—in some ways it's more like a very slow stroll through a great museum—for the performances and for the risks Malick takes as a filmmaker.

There's no one else quite like him, and no other film quite like THE TREE OF LIFE.


Anonymous said...

Michael, after reflection, I concluded that, although I understood the characters, I didn't really care about any of them---was a dispassionate observer throughout--- and that that is probably due to the lack of storyline. I'm glad I saw it and stuck it out, glad to see such a collage but the not caring seems to be a "tipping" flaw in evaluating whether the movie "works". (Bill L)

Lally said...

Yeah, I think a lot of folks felt that way from what I'm hearing. I went in having heard and read a lot of negative criticism, so that probably put me in a more accepting place for its flaws. And I have to admit, I did in fact care about the characters. Maybe not Penn as the grown son, but about the boys and both parents. But like I said I knew going in there'd be a lot of non-linear elements and visual effects that might seemingly distract from any story, so I ended up being surprised at how much of the story i followed and identified with.