Film Reviews

The Tree Of Life Terrence Malick

Rating - 10/10

There is a long passage that takes up most of the first third of The Tree of Life that stands among the most transfixing in my experience with movies. Much in the way emcees like to throw their hat into the "greatest rapper alive" ring with verses culled to show all of their strengths, one wonders if this is Malick soliciting consideration for "best film-maker of all time" status. He isn't that, and that's not really what he is trying to do. The man is, after all, a reclusive Christian philosopher not known for flacking himself, or talking to the press or being photographed for that matter.

Still, the breadth of The Tree of Life is a surprise even for a writer-director whose trademarks have been jaw-dropping beauty and the inspiration of awe. Following buzz, it is a red flag of awesomeness afoot if comparisons to 2001 start popping up, particularly for a movie not actually set in space. It feels a bit like, with Kubrick having reached back to the dawn of man for his classic, Malick had an urge to one-up him and go back to the dawn of the universe.

The Tree of Life does just that. There is a symphony of majestic cosmic dust and epic world formation within the confines of The Tree of Life. Rumors of dinosaurs turn out to be substantiated. Beyond the Kubrick comparison, there is a more recent correlative in Aronofsky's The Fountain, which concerned a different tree of life. Malick owes something there in his visuals, but goes so much further.

Of course, a Malick movie will never feel like a Kubrick or Aranofsky movie. Fans and detractors know the Malick rhythms. Innocent moviegoers attracted by star power and festival buzz are bound to be confused and perhaps angered or raptured by them. The montage that The Tree of Life plows into proceeds at the glacial pace and distant gaze of a benevolent deity. Malick feels no rush to show the history of time.

Like 2001's journey through space and time, this passage of The Tree of Life seems destined to be a head classic while almost as certainly being a little too involved and slow to hold the attention of a distracted drug user. Malick just takes quite a bit longer. The score by Alexandre Desplat is up to it. Other than that, audio-wise, we just have, very occasionally, those famous Malick voiceover lines, in which the principle characters speak in hushed awe simple philosophical and spiritual puzzles to...God, the universe, themselves?

Now I've spoken of about a third of the movie. Outside and entwined in this cosmic symphony is something very small and personal. Most of the movie concerns a boy's experiences in a small window of his maturation. The boy shares quite a bit with Malick, growing up in rural Texas in the '50s-'60s, having an intimidating father and an ethereal mother and later losing a brother presumably to the war.

Note that this story isn't really told. It is simple enough to glean from moments but that alone can be very frustrating to many. Malick goes, even harder than before, for feelings and impressions more than chronology and explanation. Where the big early cosmic narrative may be the splashier and more historic aspect of The Tree of Life, the childhood segments are very much the overwhelming heart of the piece and may have as much beauty and feeling in them.

All of this is threaded with Sean Penn as the boy grown and spiritually adrift in a modern metropolis. It plays like he spent maybe a week or two in three locations. He doesn't speak so much as he does a lot of walking around sad and lost. It plays well, though, as he gets to walk into a more embracing conclusion than any Malick movie yet. Finally he takes his story back to Eden, or to Heaven, or Nirvana or wherever you care to call it. It has taken him almost forty years to take a story that far.

Of course, it is realized beautifully in a way that would sound embarrassing and simple to describe plainly. That's the thing with Malick. Plenty will find The Tree of Life ponderous and pretentious. Many smart people will find it stupid. Dumb people too. I was enraptured.