Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Slice of Life - A Look at Terrence Malick's new film The Tree of Life

Terrence Malick's new feature, The Tree of Life, deals with concepts of creation and evolution, of loss and faith, and questions of being and existence. That is not to say the film need be watched by the mindful eye of a believer or the un-trusting one of a skeptic to make any sense. The film is, after all, on it's surface an exploration of relationships: a son's to his father, a son's to his mother, a husband to his wife, a human's to God, and so on.

At first glance, we are bombarded by familiar image. In fact, any person bored on a Sunday afternoon can turn on the Discovery Channel and see replicas of, or maybe even exact shots of, large chunks of Malick's Act II (what I like to call, Simulacra Earth). He brings the viewer through his version of the beginning of life here on Earth: an explosion of rock and fire, the beginnings of life in the ocean, even a vaginal-looking jelly fish, followed by a quite phallic-looking fish creature. Then dinosaurs, that's right, dinosaurs. All leading up to a fetus in utero and then birth.  The problem is (disregarding the none-too-real-looking CGI monsters/dinos) that we've seen it all before. The overdone shot of Earth as a large rock mass plummets to the surface causing ripples in the deep blue. The obvious replay of the unborn fetus, pink and black-eyed like so many eye-witness testimonies of Extraterrestrials. The much (over)used swooping tracking shot across the ocean, the desert, the whatever surface fits. All of it not new.

So what's all the fuss about over this film then you ask? I'm not really sure.

What we do have is an exploration through memory and death. What we don't have is a narrative to follow. Here's the premise: a man raised by a very strict father tries to come to terms with the loss of his brother years before. 2 hrs. 18 min.

Ok, ok, there are some positives here. Malick's characters are believable and warm, especially the father and mother (superbly acted by Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain). And the boy, Jack, played by Hunter McCracken (unfortunate name, I know) takes us to depths of character with no dialogue needed.
The set design is nearly flawless as we seamlessly shift from the 1950's ahead to present day. The juxtaposition of the suburban world little Jack grows up in versus the glass and steel one he must try to make sense of as an adult nearly become characters unto themselves.

And then there's the themes mentioned above, specifically loss and faith. An important part of the film comes when a little boy drowns in the public pool. This is the moment when Little Jack really begins to question his faith, a faith written on him by his father not one chosen by him. His voiceover is a question to God, in fact all of the voiceovers in the film are not questions to self or to the audience, but instead a dialogue between the character and God, Jack simply asks why. From this point forward Jack struggles mightily with many things. The confusion of God and Dad being a biggy, along with the difference between right and wrong. Something Jack also struggles with. There are times when he is about to do something wrong and we can see in his eyes he knows the difference but his body goes ahead and does it anyway. Maybe to get attention from Dad/God; even though negative, it is still attention.  The major problem here is that by the time we see Older Jack (Sean Penn) we don't get enough of him. The audience can't connect to his older self. This mis-connection might be a casualty of editing, who knows.
This is a film of a 67 year old man (Malick) coming to terms with  life and death (his own), while at the same time dealing with loss and death of the people around him. And for that, I applaud Malick. He's honest and true and all of his films are beautifully composed and smartly shot. Sometimes though, I just need more.

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