Monday, June 6, 2011
THE TREE OF LIFE (2011)
There are few filmmakers as ambitious or as frustrating as Terrence Malick. His latest cinematic tone poem moves back and forth in time, exploring life, faith and forgiveness. We begin with the middle-aged Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien (Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain) in their beautiful, empty home as they learn that one of their teenage sons is dead. It is never made clear how the son died (though I had the impression he had killed himself). We only know that the mother is bereft and the father nagged by vague guilt. Next we flash forward to present day where surviving son Jack (Sean Penn) still grapples with grief for his brother and anger at his father. Then it’s back to the Big Bang and the arrival of the dinosaurs (I’m not kidding) until we finally return to the O’Briens in the 1950s as they start their family. There the story, such as it is, becomes more linear, and we follow the O’Briens from the birth of their three sons through the boys’ childhood. While Mrs. O’Brien shows her children the way of grace and creates a warm, nurturing environment, Mr. O’Brien teaches his children the way of nature and comes down hardest on Jack (now played by Hunter McCracken) in relaying life’s hardscrabble lessons. Gorgeously shot by Emmanuel Lubezki, Malick’s film, in its best moments, feels like captured communal memory. The wonder of seeing the world through childlike eyes has rarely been more effectively conveyed. And Malick elicits remarkably natural performances from novice actors McCracken and the beatific Laramie Eppler, who plays younger brother R.L. Pitt works hard at being the hyper-achieving father who takes his personal frustrations out on his family, and Penn broods through his brief moments in the film. Chastain, however, effortlessly registers every subtle shade of emotion through her delicate features and tethers us to this ephemeral movie. Writer/director Malick tackles big philosophical issues with a lyrical, ludicrous commitment but has no new answers. And while the end result is admirable, it is far from satisfying.