THE TREE OF LIFE (2011, directed by Terrence Malick, 138 minutes, U.S.)
BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC
The Tree of Life, the fifth film from maverick filmmaker Terrence Malick in 38 years, is an improbable master stroke, a film that amplifies and clarifies the singular vision of his previous work while heading places his admirers could have never foreseen. It is impossibly ambitious. Using surrealism and CGI for the first time, Malick is looking to expound on the biggest questions of life. Over the course of two hours and 15 minutes, this impassioned, ethereal epic succeeds so well that it emerges as the rarest beast of American film: a true “Event Picture.” It’s like a never-before-seen carnival attraction has arrived in time for summer, and everyone in town should indulge their curiosity and line up to experience the ride.
All of Malick’s work explores the theme of falling from grace and losing Eden, whether it be the criminal lovers of his early films, Badlands and Days of Heaven, or the soldiers and conquerors of his late work in The Thin Red Line and The New World. His early films were fables that were illustrated by poetic moments that Malick was able capture from nature. In his later films he worked those unusual, other-worldly moments into historical dramas. With Tree of Life Malick offers what is his most abstract narrative yet, a seemingly personal set of memories whose ownership is made transferable to the audience itself.
In the only contemporary setting in Malick’s career, he shows Jack (Sean Penn), a powerful financier who has lost touch with his feeling for life, an admission heard only in voice-over. Jack is often photographed in the cold, glass towers of his modern skyscraping office, he seems suspended above the earth, unable to touch it. He wonders where he had lost his sensitivity to life’s wonders and with that the film is off on a journey of the metaphysical, a vision of outer and inner space that has drawn comparisons to the light show in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Traveling the distance of memory, we see lava bubble, the rings of Saturn glisten and we examine our primordial lizard brains until we end up in Jack’s childhood, in small town Texas during the 1950s. Young Jack (now played by newcomer Hunter McCracken) is one of three sons living in a sort of sensual paradise. Malick throws you into the boys lazy summer of bike races, fishing, hide and seek and mornings in church and Malick’s sanctified, earthen atmosphere propels you back to your own youth. Admittedly, all this sounds a little thin on paper, but it is Malick’s unhurried skill at capturing the natural world that gives the film its deep-seated emotional resonance.
There’s one tiny moment that exemplifies Malick’s unique touch. In an early scene, the one year old Jack is shown meeting his infant brother. Over the course of 30 seconds, the one year old looks at the infant and his face flashes a string of expressions signaling anger, fear, curiosity, sadness and more, in a manner no actor could dream of duplicating. It was a shot that must have taken endless patience, with no real guarantee that the child would deliver anything usable. Yet, with a big Hollywood budget flowing, Malick is able to wait until the natural world gives him the lightning-in-a-bottle imagery he needs. And in this film he captures those moments consistently, with a cumulative effect that is ultimately emotionally wrenching.
It is in this Eden that young Jack sees his soul conflicted between his feelings for his sensitive, saintly mother (the divine Jessica Chastain) and his confident businessman father (a beautifully restrained performance by Brad Pitt). Its his mother who consoles him when his father rages, but when he begins to adopt his father’s rage for his own, we sense the coldness that is taking over Jack’s heart.
It’s a film that wants not just to entertain us, but wants us to transcends our very souls, with a finale that literally takes its characters to a higher plane. In a cynical world, I feel like I’m haunted by voices that are going to balk at the film’s spiritual climax. Yet even with an atheist’s skepticism, Tree of Life can put a viewer at awe at the strength of Malick’s devotion, a devotion to the idea that cinema can conjure an experience comparable to its own Sistine Chapel.
DAVID EDELSTEIN: It would be easy to malign J.J. Abrams’s Super 8 as a shameless ripoff of Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T. and Jurassic Park — that is, if Abrams didn’t rekindle at least some of the excitement of seeing those films way back when. We didn’t just consume Close Encounters and E.T. like so much disposable pop culture. We were dazzled by a new mode of storytelling, accessible to all and yet personal and pure, the product of one visionary dreamer. But then came the Spielberg imitations, some produced by Spielberg’s company, and his name became a dirty word. “Oh no, not more lame Spielberg kiddie mush …” Even Spielberg finally got the message, and began to direct prestige movies. Now he’s co-produced Super 8, and because 25 years have elapsed, we can savor it without having nightmarish flashbacks to The Goonies. And though Super 8 isn’t in the same league as its models, it still hits home the way all the impersonal franchise pictures out there don’t. […] At least Abrams makes you feel his enthusiasm. He’s of the age to have been influenced by Jaws and Close Encounters, and my guess is he ‘s been fighting not to reproduce Spielberg’s signature moves since he picked up a camera. Now, with the blessing of the master, he can plagiarize with alacrity. He can track in on his youthful subjects from below, vividly bringing their emotions to the fore. He can use sudden silence to make us laugh out loud at the prospect of being jolted out of our seats. He can film the starry heavens to make us instantly aware of all the mysteries of the universe we force ourselves to forget just to get on with our days. In Super 8, the magic of those older movies filters through like light from a distant star. MORE