DAILY FILM DOSE: A Daily Film Appreciation and Review Blog: CANNES 2011 - The Tree of Life

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

CANNES 2011 - The Tree of Life

The Tree of Life (2011) dir. Terrence Malick
Starring: Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, and Jessica Chastain


By Blair Stewart

With his fifth feature, Terrence Malick doesn't necessarily need to make another film after The Tree of Life. In gestation for decades, it’s his Apocalypse Now, his Ran, his Once Upon a Time in the America. There is a hugeness about it, as Malick has crafted a work about life, the afterlife and all known creation that boomingly expresses his philosophies and elements of his childhood. The Big Bang (or Genesis) is painstakingly re-enacted from the first pop to forms of interlacing DNA with the consultation of Douglas Trumbull, which gives the film a 2001 star sequence quality. I should mention that the birth of the universe through to evolutionary bloom occurs in the 2nd reel. What could a director possibly do afterwards to top that?

Tree is an unabashedly spiritual experience that irked my inner Agnostic. And yet, overlooking the predictability of whispering voice-over as hands brush past rock and weed as we'd expect from Malick, the film's scope was quite humbling – a one-second shot of a supernova is still pestering me hours later. Just about every thistle in existence is preciously filmed, as Malick and returning New World cameraman Emmanuel Lubezki tilt the image upwards to turn an oak orchard, crevasse or Brad Pitt into iconography. The film is mostly a multimillion-dollar home movie for the director and merges into a dense narrative successor to Godfrey Reggio's QATSI series.

The more recent planetary-bound story is split between little Jack O'Brien's (Hunter McKraken) Texas childhood with his father (Pitt) and mother (Jessica Chastain), embodying combustible nature and gracefulness, and the cross-cutting of the grown Jack (Sean Penn) and his alienation within cityscapes. Pitt is the featured star, but his role is more of a presence than a performance, a figure of mythical proportions in the household to his children as their saintly mother (Jessica Chastain) is in tune with their nature. The Tree of Life might plumb overwrought moments of golden-era 50s innocence, but the brief sparks of transcendence (kids shadows at play shot with an upside-down camera, Pitt's mute reaction to an unpleasant phone call, the fog of pesticide, Saturn) act as a counter-measure to occasional sappiness.

My star rating is a smokescreen. The Tree of Life could be four stars next week or one. I'm baffled by its leaps in logic and scenario, as Malick's impatient cinematic language is spoken quickly. I'm only certain that it is worth seeing. And my head is throbbing right now.


Jonny said...

Blair I'm curious what you think of Malick in general and his previous films. Do you feel like this is a departure for him or has he been building to this all along in his previous films? Did you like The New World?

Aaron Horton said...

Hi Blair,
I didn't want to read your entire post... because I don't like knowing anything about a good film I plan to see. But I did read the first sentence of each paragraph, and enjoyed them thoroughly. Also, I recommend two extra strength Tylenol for that headache.

Blair Stewart said...

Thank Aaron: Who I suspect is my old VFS buddy, good to hear from you.

To Johnny: I have a great deal of respect for Malick with a deep fondness for "Badlands" and "Thin Red Line". The latter is one of my most enjoyable cinema experiences as I attended a screening in Vancouver as a teenager by a Malick fan who rented a theater for the night in order to re-screen it for the public. I wasn't taken with the "New World" and found it to be middling, but I'll re-watch it next week to see if my attitude has changed. Malick has pretty much departed from basis narrative structure as in the space of four cuts within 10 seconds of film the audience could be in outer space, underwater, 50's Texas with Pitt, or present-day Sean Penn-I feel he's been building up to this approach. To me I regard it like "Tree" is his own "Amarcord" (reflections of his childhood) with extended philosophical musings on time, memory, space, et al(his adulthood); Robert McKee would not approve of the script. In discussions last night with fellow film friends the general consensus was Malick is self-indulgent and perhaps a touch crazy, but so was Tarkovsky, Tarr, Fellini, you get the picture. The brief high-points in that film were mad-crazy genius, but it had many, many moments of oblivious self-parody. A flawed film I need to rewatch.

Jonny said...

Blair thanks for elaborating. I understand where you're coming from I think. The New World was my favorite film of the 2000's, and actually I've liked each of his films in succession in greater degrees. Perhaps The New World was sort of a tipping point of sorts from what I'm reading. Like he went over the edge after that point. I will have to see for myself.

Blair Stewart said...

Thanks for allowing me to elaborate Johnny, it wasn't easy to write a quickie review on "Tree" when the film actual requires a few days of contemplation. I might still write a 2nd take on it in a few weeks.I could still see this film ending up on my "Best of" list, it's an extremely unique mainstream film for our time, and I'm hoping the same Christian folk who made "The Passion of the Christ" a success will show up for this, Brad Pitt should be rewarded for sticking his neck out as a star/producer on Malick's experiment. I'd much rather reward flawed audacity than safe predictability, and I'm sure Hollywood will be terrified of this film if it finds any success at the box office or the Oscars.