Palme d’Or winner at Cannes
Malick’s epic masterpiece won the Palme d’Or, top prize at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival.
A mother asks why her son is dead, who God is, and why we are here at all. Set in 1950′s Texas, the film is all yearning, exploring, imploring. It’s in stark contrast to the loud, violent fare of modern movies.
Our cosmic beginnings
After Mrs. O’Brien (Jessica Chastain) receives news of her 19-year-old son’s death, Malick returns us to our cosmic origins. Galaxies form. Earth develops. A couple meets. A child is born.
Hundreds of beautifully composed images shape a quiet, elegant whole. Upheavals, universal and personal, take on a stately grace. The soundscape is lyrical. Even protozoa and dinosaurs demonstrate gentle intelligence.
Malick’s sparse dialogue and interior monologues accompany scenes like poetry. Lush cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki and the orchestral score by Alexandre Desplat are a revelation.
Two ways through life
Mrs. O’Brien teaches her young sons two ways through life. The way of grace accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked, insulted or injured. The way of nature (i.e., the way of the ego) dominates others, pleases itself and dwells in unhappiness. “Love is smiling through all things,” she says.
Pitt reveals a complex go-getter in the aerospace industry, a stern father who is an avid fan of Brahms. Yet O’Brien can’t get along with his family at the dinner table. His sons never show him enough respect, or measure up to his machismo.
Young Jack has begun breaking windows, stealing and tormenting small animals. “I’m as bad as you are,” Jack tells his father. Grace touches him one day and he experiences a change of heart. Jack apologizes to the brother (Laramie Eppler) he has hurt. He is kind to a neighborhood boy scarred in a house fire.
“The only way to be happy is to love. Unless you love, your life will flash by.” As Jack’s mother, Chastain is grace personified. She evokes a woman so gentle that a butterfly lands on her outstretched hand. When she disinfects a child’s cut and blows on it, we can feel her cool breath.
Chastain, Pitt extraordinary
Childhood innocence is gradually worn by the rules of society. “It takes fierce will to get ahead in this world,” Jack’s father tells him. The boy is forbidden to cross the invisible property line of a neighbor’s yard.
Sean Penn plays Jack as an angry, disillusioned man still grappling with the memory of his father. Every year he lights a candle to commemorate his “true, kind” brother. Best Actor Penn delivers strong supporting work as he looks to the celestial skyscrapers of Houston for solace.
Natural disaster shakes up Jack
An asteroid strikes, causing massive tsunamis. Jack wanders a beach afterwards, filled with awe and wonder. It is a new beginning.
The Tree of Life imparts a direct, mystical encounter between God and humans. Malick uses Christian references as the family attends church in Waco, Texas. The tree of life is an ancient symbol of heaven and earth in many religions.
The director continues his fascination with nature and the manmade world. The fields and forests of Jack’s childhood are a respite from searing inner conflicts. A universal perspective helps Jack heal years later.
Douglas Trumbull’s special effects are natural and imaginative, resonant with the film’s ordered harmony. Superb editing is accomplished by Hank Corwin, Jay Rabinowitz, Daniel Rezende, Billy Weber and Mark Yoshikawa.
Malick makes films with great care and thought. After studying philosophy at Harvard, he directed four films over four decades, The New World, The Thin Red Line, Days of Heaven and Badlands.
“He is working within a Hollywood system, but in a unique and personal way, much the same as Kubrick did,” according to Hannah Patterson, author of The Cinema of Terrence Malick: Poetic Visions of America.
“There is that level of mystery that comes from not doing interviews and not being in the public eye,” she said. Malick’s films speak for themselves.
Three years in the making
The Tree of Life is the director’s most epic and spiritual film to date. It shows civilization as an experiment, a tiny shard of all that is.
“It is only with the heart that one can see rightly,” wrote Antoine de Saint-Exupery. To fully appreciate Malick’s fifth feature, we must experience it with the heart.
Malick’s next project, scheduled for a 2012 release, stars Ben Affleck, Rachel McAdams, Javier Bardem and Rachel Weisz. (5 out of 5 stars)
The Tree of Life 2011 / PG-13 / 2 hours, 18 min
Cast Overview: Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, Jessica Chastain, Fiona Shaw, Irene Bedard, Jessica Fuselier, Hunter McCracken, Laramie Eppler, Tye Sheridan
Director: Terrence Malick
Genre: Drama, Indie