Terrence Malick's Tree of Life is an often-dazzling, frequently engaging, powerful spectacle. There are times when the movie grips the viewer with an unexpected intensity, as if Malick is pushing directly on emotional pressure points. At the same time, the film is frustratingly ethereal. To expect a movie like this to give the viewer easy answers or to hold their hand through many of the film's deeply abstract visual passages is unrealistic, but even gathering the film up in one's head is a nearly insurmountable challenge, with pieces from one part so disconnected from another, it's as if someone took several gorgeous, unique puzzles, shuffled them together, and asked the audience to try and form a single image.
The first 40 or so minutes are devoted to a history of the universe, shown essentially without comment, drifting through the birth of the universe and passing on through an era with dinosaurs. Malick's imagery is undeniably gorgeous, but the sequence, set to classical music, felt like a shadow of Godfrey Reggio's Koyaanisqatsi, which said more about the nature of nature, using existing footage, than Malick does with his created visuals. Eventually, Malick revises his focus on a family living in Texas in the 1950s, and the film gains a more palpable sense of motivation.
The primary focus of the family segments is Jack, a character played by Hunter McCracken as a youth, and Sean Penn as an adult. The film is loosely framed with the idea that the adult Jack is reflecting on the death of his younger brother, and eventually, on his youth as a whole. Young Jack is an angry kid: constantly provoked and criticized by his father (Brad Pitt), unable to respect his mother (Jessica Chastain), distant to his two brothers R.L. and Steve (Laramie Eppler and Tye Sheridan). All of the footage that concerns the O'Briens is transfixing, with Malick picking up on the most subtle emotional cues from his actors, particularly Pitt, whose unnamed father figure acts tough, to ensure his boys are tough, but frequently confesses quiet, softly sorrowful regrets about his life and the direction it's taken. Malick also captures a startling, crackling sense of danger: it's rare that a scene is more gripping than a moment when Jack and R.L. play with a lamp and a coat hanger, and Malick effortlessly uses it to drift into not one but two powerful emotional scenes.
Although the "birth of the universe" sequences are created with impeccable CG, cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki links the two chapters of the film with gorgeous visuals that capture the vibrancy of nature, even in an average suburb. Just looking at much of Tree of Life feels like a breath of fresh air, with such lush trees and bright, sparkling sunlight. Lubezki and Malick are a touch too in-love with extreme, angled close-ups and low-to-the ground shots, which become slightly monotonous after awhile, but it's hard to imagine a better-looking movie coming out this year.
Sadly, the film grinds to a halt in the home stretch, returning to Penn in what seems to be the present day. Where Pitt displays complicated, deeply felt emotions, Penn is a stony blank slate, refusing to let even a trace of sadness peek through his deadened gaze. Throughout the film, Penn provides fleeting narration, whispering up at God, and that too feels unconvincing (not to mention slightly clunky, hitting the nail on the head in an awkward, bad-poetry sort of way). In the last ten or fifteen minutes, Malick gives himself entirely over to visual metaphor, and the result should be an emotional crescendo, but Penn's blankness blots it out. Tree of Life, in all aspects, is torn between two poles: nature and grace, past and present, engaged and distant, good and bad.
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