Saturday, June 4, 2011

The Tree of Life

With only 5 films to show for a 40 year career, it's no wonder that Terrence Malick feels it necessary to fill his films with some pretty heavy stuff. Unlike his contemporary Woody Allen, who, with nearly 50 films over the same time span, can afford to spend a film (or two) on comparatively trivial things, you get the feeling that with Malick, every frame has been meticulously crafted for maximum effect, and if something doesn't make sense or feels cliche, it's likely due to your own cynical or critical shortcomings. Despite my description to the contrary, he is about the furthest thing from David Lynch I can think of. In place of the Lynchian sense of imminent doom and ominous non sequiturs, Malick's films possess a sense of wonder and awe with the world at large, that feels culled from the mind of a child. It is fitting, I guess, that his most ambitious film to date- one that attempts to answer the boldest questions of humanity, does so via a slice of 1950's Americana through the eyes of three young boys.

The word 'review' seems hollow in this context, just as the term 'film' does to describe Malick's projection of light and sound. The Tree of Life is best experienced as uncritically as possible, simply allowing the experience to wash over you and absorb you into its undertow (as New-Agey as that sounds). The film is not exempt from criticism, but deserves to be taken as a whole, and not on a scene-by-scene, line-by-line basis.

Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain play the parents of three young boys growing up in Waco in what appears to be the 1950's. Between these scenes, are episodes featuring the oldest son in a 'present-day' metropolis, wandering disoriented, and a 20 minute detour presenting the origin of life that defies explanation or synopsis. The majority of the story revolves around this small Texas family, and how they maintain a uncertain balance between 'nature' and 'grace'. Naturally, the father is the one responsible for instilling virtues of 'fierce will' while the mother speaks to love and compassion. When these scales tip, as they frequently do, the parents respond in kind to reclaim the equilibrium. It is these family scenes that are the most evocative. How Malick coaxed such amazing performances out of these children (even the toddlers and babies are remarkable) is beyond my comprehension. Desplat's triumphant score and Lubezki's masterful camera work pull you wholly into this world, chasing behind children as they amble through houses and backyards.

The heaviest thematic elements surround the unanswerable, inevitable questions directed to the heavens in the wake of tragedy. The "Why's" that persist and haunt a person the rest of their lives, and can shake faith in some while reinforcing it in others. Malick shows us that within the beauty and order in the world, there lies the potential for devastation at any moment, and at any scale. Is the loss of a loved one any more tragic than the mass extinction of the dinosaurs? How can we justify a shrug over tears? In the end, I don't think Malick wants us to be these tender souls, perpetually in mourning, nor does he want us to be callous to the world and ignore and dismiss beauty simply because it is temporary. What Malick believes, and what The Tree of Life instilled in me, is a reverence for life precisely because it is so fleeting.  

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