The Tree of Life
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
(five of five stars)
Rated PG13/134 min.
Three things are true about a Terrence Malick movie: they’re years-in-the-making personal films, audiences are typically baffled by them but, over time, they are reevaluated and declared works of genius. Malick has only made five films, but each is so breathtaking, so thrilling to watch, that his reputation as a recluse and master filmmaker have rightfully placed him next to Stanley Kubrick as one of the geniuses of cinema.
Malick’s films (like The Thin Red Line) tend to linger on images of nature, which can annoy audiences who just want to get on with it and focus on the plot. His movies are for patient, adventurous audiences and anyone who wants to see something truly amazing.
His latest is about a small family living in Texas: Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt) is a loving but stern father who is having a tough time connecting with his son Jack (Hunter McCracken, superb in his film debut). Their uneasy relationship is remembered years later, as Jack, played as an adult by Sean Penn, is haunted by the events that left a mark on his childhood.
After a somber start, with the O’Briens dealing with a personal tragedy, we get a lengthy, wink-free and sensational set piece portraying the creation of life on earth. At this point, most audiences will check out. It’s a shame, since they will not only miss a once-in-a-lifetime cinematic experience but also a rich, complex portrait of a young man’s troubled upbringing.
The Tree of Life is a gigantic masterpiece. It’s a film Malick has clearly been working towards his entire career. Imagery and themes from his previous films resurface but he doesn’t repeat himself. Malick uses cinema as a form of poetic expression and never goes easy on his audience, with character and plot details revealing themselves gradually and from observation.
There’s hardly any dialogue and there hasn’t been an American movie like this since 2001: A Space Odyssey (with a little Stand By Me thrown in). It may be Malick’s least accessible movie, but who cares? You want art, awesome sights, a moving family story, Brad Pitt and glimpses of the first creatures to ever walk the earth? You got it.
Penn’s role is tiny but Pitt is top-notch as a hard-to-pin father who is both tender and brutal to his three sons. Pitt and Malick paint Mr. O’Brien in shades of grey and audiences will debate the character as much as the other scenes that are open to debate. Jessica Chastain is luminous as Jack’s long suffering and nearly angelic mother and the special effects (by legendary f/x artist Douglas Trumball) will knock your socks off.
Feelings of joy, guilt, remorse and nostalgia will pass through you in waves as you watch it—you’ll feel this movie as much as the characters do. The many moments of symbolism are beautiful but the best scenes are firmly planted on earth. It feels longer than the 134-minute running time but even Malick’s long-winded, what-does-it-all-mean ending shouldn’t be missed on the biggest screen possible.
This movie is in love with and in total awe of life and wants to take audiences on a cinematic journey that won’t be matched this year or ever again. It will challenge and polarize audiences; love it or hate it, you will not forget it. For the price of admission, it’s the best ride of the summer. ■