Monday, June 27, 2011

The Tree of Life is not your typical summer movie

The advertisements for Terrence Malick’s new film,“The Tree of Life,” smacked of “Art” with a capital “A,” which is not encouragement for me to see a film.  In the past, I’ve felt there was something amiss if I didn’t enjoy “Art” films, that messages that the filmmaker had put out there in plain sight went right over my head.  So it was with some apprehension that I joined a small audience for a late afternoon showing.  Everyone was quiet — it felt respectful, like the hush of people who were chatting a moment ago, but now they’re in church.  Throughout the film’s 139 minutes, we were all careful about making noise with our popcorn or slurping our soda.  When it was over, I sat watching the credits, but before the door closed on a departing woman I heard her say, “What was that?  I mean it was beautiful, but what was it?”  Not a wayward response, but probably not Mr. Malick’s ideal.

Terrence Malick wrote and directed “The Tree of Life,” which is more beautiful than I can comprehend.  It not only gives us a family, a truthful, flawed, confused, questing family, living in the 1950s and 1960s south; it goes beyond human history into the birth of the universe.  To ask questions, to ask why, apparently requires Mr. Malick to go back to the beginning of time, and show us where the world came from, how life started, how we got here.  Although I may not understand why, I’m rather glad, since what Mr. Malick has given us is an extraordinary combination of images, light and dark, movement and sound, to which he added ordinary yet interesting human beings.  The history of the world, the history of a family.  All presumably to answer whispered questions of faith. 
Laramie Eppler, Jessica Chastain, and Hunter McCracken.  (c) 2011 Fox Searchlight/Merie Wallace

In the opening we meet Jessica Chastain playing Mrs. O’Brien as she receives a telegram at the front door of her upscale suburban house.  We are immediately aware someone has died and something inside Mrs. O’Brien has therefore broken.  She telephones someone, it is Brad Pitt as Mr. O’Brien, and he too breaks down, differently.  In an entirely separate time and place of glittering tall buildings we see Sean Penn.  I had no idea who he was.  I had no idea who started whispering.  Sometimes I thought it was Mrs. O’Brien, who seemed to be the person of faith.  Other times I assumed it was one of the three O’Brien sons.  The whispering goes on throughout the film, starting with wondering: Since the son of the O’Briens has always been in the hands of God, why is that son dead?  The whispering voice tells us that it is his brother who has died at the age of 19.  We gradually realize which of these three boys died young and brought about this contemplation, but nothing is free in this film.

The O’Brien family’s story is touching, powerfully written, performed and photographed.  The evocation of 1950s suburban Texas is lulling as a summer breeze — you can smell the dusty streets, the dew, you marvel at how simple and pretty everything was.  And then the trucks spraying DDT drive through the idyllic neighborhood, and children play in it.  Appearances can be deceiving.  The O’Briens are typical and appear happy, but there is dissension, there are moments of fear, moments of hatred, moments of withdrawal.  On the other hand, there were moments when I felt I had to work too hard to understand what was going on, when we were, where we were, who we were.  Scenes of family life — contentment and discord — are mixed with whispered biblical references, simple scenes of nature contrasted with the grandeur of spiral swirls of stained glass. 

Brad Pitt does gorgeous work as Mr. O’Brien, the dad.  This is a strong and sensitive performance of a disappointed man — from a young man marveling at the birth of his son, aging as he tries to teach his children, tries to excel, tries to meet his own expectations, sometimes succeeding, sometimes failing.  His own crises come, bringing harsh impact to his family, yet still he keeps our sympathy.  Hunter McCracken was intense and heartbreakingly real as young Jack in the throes of adolescence.  We felt his pain, we were furious with him, we loved him.  Jessica Chastain is a revelation as Mrs. O’Brien, living this woman’s life from early joys through years of conflict to tragedy.  The two younger sons were played sweetly by Laramie Eppler as the middle son, R.L., always benevolent, patient with his elder brother, as if he understood the displacement his birth caused even while a young child; Tye Sheridan played the youngest son Steve with a gentleness, fragility on some occasions, exuberance in others.  All three boys were totally believable — as was the toddler playing the young Jack discovering, when R.L. is born, a world in which he is no longer its center.  Fiona Shaw drops in a few times as “Grandmother” — whose mother she is was unclear, but I’d guess she was Mr. O’Brien’s mother.  Mr. Malick’s direction of the children in particular was marvelous, the several young boys who played the three O’Brien sons, as well as Jack’s friends in the neighborhood.  The scenes of those difficult years, of Jack’s rebellion, Jack’s uncertainty, Jack’s hating of what he was doing despite the need to do it, these were revelatory scenes of coming of age.  I believe Sean Penn as the grown-up eldest son, Jack, performed a function of tying the film together from beginning to end, but I freely admit I did not understand the ending, the where, the when, the how, who’s dead, who’s alive.  I just didn’t know for certain.  I don’t necessarily need to know to enjoy the film, but I expect that will be a frustration for many. 

The cinematography of Emmanuel Lubezki is a triumph — it is compelling, moving, beautiful, and finally edited with respect and rhythm by the five-man editing team credited:  Hank Corwin, Jay Rabinowitz, Daniel Rezende, Billy Weber, and Mark Yoshikawa.  Additionally, the scoring by Alexandre Desplat was sometimes glorious, sometimes sweet, always right on.

Don’t have a coffee before you go, don’t have a drink.  Just go into the darkness and accept whatever comes.  And don’t ask me what happens at the end.  I don’t know what Mr. Malick wanted me to hear, to see, to feel.  No matter — I may have missed many of his points, but I was thoroughly involved in and intrigued by the lives of the O’Briens, as well as the creation of the world, which was terrifying and exhilarating.  Visually transcendent and augmented with deep work done by Brad Pitt and Hunter McCracken and the happy introduction (at least to me) of the radiant Jessica Chastain, this film is well worth your time.  I’m glad I listened to my friends and went to see it despite my forebodings that it might be Art.  Which, by the way, it is.

~ Molly Matera, signing off …. In case you wondered, this is not your typical summer movie….

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