THE TREE OF LIFE

June 9, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. Rare are the times that I find myself lacking words to express my opinion on a movie just watched. But writer/director Terrence Malick does not play fair. First of all, what director makes only five films in 40 years? Who makes a film about CREATION, life, evolution, spirituality, death and existence? What director seems to thrive when no real story is needed to make his points? Which director can so mess with the viewer’s head through visual artistry never before seen on screen? The answer to these questions, of course, is Terrence Malick. And I hold him responsible the fact that I remain in somewhat of a semi-conscious fog four days after watching his latest masterpiece.

 Any attempt to explain this film would be futile. It is so ripe for interpretation and quite a personal, intimate journey for any viewer who will open themselves up to the experience. What I can tell you is that much of the film is focused on a typical family living in small town rural Texas in the early 1950’s. Brad Pitt plays Mr. O’Brien, the stern disciplinarian father and husband to Jessica Chastain‘s much softer Mrs. O’Brien.

Near the beginning of the film, we get Mrs. O’Brien as narrator explaining that when she was a child, the nuns informed that in life one must choose between Nature and Grace. Nature being the real time of real life, whereas Grace is the more spiritual approach. Clearly, Mr. O’Brien has chosen Nature, while his wife embodies Grace. Watching their three boys evolve in this household is quite a cinematical treat – and is done with so little dialogue, it’s almost shocking to the senses.

 One of the many things that jumped out at me was the set and production design of Jack Fisk. Mr. Fisk is a frequent collaborator with Mr. Malick and is also the husband of Sissy Spacek, who starred in Malick’s first knockout film Badlands. Unlike many films, I did not have the feeling I was watching a movie about the 50’s. Instead, the look is directly IN the 50’s … slamming screen doors, tree houses, and family supper time! But don’t think for a moment that this is a story about the O’Brien’s and their sons. This family is merely Malick’s vessel for showing the earthly connections between the universe and each of the particles within. If you think this sounds a bit pretentious, you should know that Mr. Malick graduated from Harvard with a philosophy degree, became a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, and a professor at MIT. This is a thinking man and an artist.

 Actually I would describe the experience as viewing an art exhibit and listening to poetry. Even the use of Smetana’s The Moldau River is an example of music melding into film. It really sweeps over and through you, and takes you on a trip of introspection. So many human emotions are touched – the need to be loved, appreciated and respected. We see the oldest O’Brien son later in life. Sean Penn plays him as a very successful middle aged adult who still struggles with the death of a brother and communication skills learned from his childhood. This is an odd sequence but provided to give balance to the flurry of emotions the younger boy survives.

This was the 2011 Cannes Film Festival Palm d’Or winner and that means little if you don’t let go as you walk into the theatre. It’s a contemplative journey that you can either take part in or fight. My advice is to open up and let this beautiful impression of all life take your mind places it may have never been before.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are ready and willing for an emotional and intellectual and spiritual journey that will have you contemplating life for many days after you leave the theatre.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you found The Hangover Part II to be too heavily intellectualized for your movie tastes.