When I first heard that Terrence Malick, recluse film director extraordinaire, was making a film with Brad Pitt and Sean Penn, I got excited. Oscar nominated for Best Director and Best Original Screenplay for his film The Thin Red Line, Malick has been an elusive presence on the international film stage, making only 5 films in 38 years. Talk about being choosy. And when I heard that the one-two punch of Pitt and Penn would be starring in this one, I got the hot-acting warm fuzzies. (In case that incredibly officiale film term of hot-acting was confusing to you non-film folk, it means hot guys acting, just fyi).
But when I saw the poster and the trailer for Malick’s newest creation titled The Tree of Life, I got a little worried. The trailer was confusing, broad, and unspecific, while the poster featured dozens of screen shots from the film, most notably of milestone moments in one’s life; babies being born, first steps, and then . . . wait, what? Yep. That’s a dinosaur. Oh yeah, there’s the solar system, kitty corner to the reptile egg. Oh Terrence, you so crazy!
Based on the poster, I must say the film was everything and nothing like what I had expected. I had to view the film twice to try and even comprehend what I had seen, much less attempt to review it. Malick made me work for it here, and I’m not talking a brisk walk around the block kind of work for it. This was like the bootcamp of movie watching experiences. My brain hurt after. I had to sit down, re-hydrate, stretch. In short, Malick kicked my ass.
To put it mildly, The Tree of Life subverts traditional narrative structure. It simultaneously tells the story of the O’Briens, a lower middle class family growing up in 1960s Texas, while also scaling the creation of the world, (cue dinosaurs), all the way to its inevitable destruction. The family in question, whose lives are so breathtakingly and bafflingly obscured, are played thoughtfully by Brad Pitt (Mr. O’Brien), Jessica Chastain (Mrs. O’Brien), the unabashedly talented Hunter McCracken (Young Jack), and Sean Penn (Jack). Running at almost two and a half hours, the story is not told in chronological order. Opening with the revelation of one of the O’Brien children’s untimely deaths, the family’s narrative is chopped up and rearranged. Some scenes last 5 seconds, others 10 minutes. We are shown random, fleeting moments in the O’Brien family’s life, (the children in the bath, Mrs. O’Brien picking lettuce from the garden), and then we are shown more substantial ones, (Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien fighting, Young Jack being baptized). These scenes are then interspliced with random, unrelated scenes of environmental and religious pathos; an unnameable light, a volcano exploding, jellyfish in the sea, a tundra mountain scape, ocean waves crashing. Some of these moments are so startlingly fleeting, while others seem to last entirely too long. This is the simultaenously off-putting and dazzling experience of watching The Tree of Life.
What Mr. Malick offers us is a retrospective of what many of the poets of the Romantic era mused about; the loss of innocence, the child’s relationship to nature, the presence of God, and the purpose of life. The result is something so astonishingly beautiful and totally confusing that it is almost an over-whleming feat to watch. There is nothing particularly note-worthy about the O’Brien family, about Jack’s struggle in a sleek, metropolitan maze to accept his brother’s untimely death, or about a tadpole swimming up a stream. Yet, as a viewer in Malick’s realm of confusion and off-putting beauty, we may see that the network of these stories, these happenings, are somehow connected and repeated in continuously meaningful patterns. We may see the constant existential confusion in the way this network links its beings together in the unfathomable narrative of time. We may see the presence of God in this indescribable, terrifying pattern. Deep shit, Malick. Fo’ serious.
My only regret with this film is that I am not possibly intelligent enough to comprehend the hundreds of aspects that Mr. Malick has so meticulously weaved together into such an unsettling package. It felt almost absurd to review The Tree of Life, as it feels impossible to truly grasp the magnitude at which Malick is operating. Yep, my half-dozen undergrad film classes did not prepare me for this.
The Tree of Life was a critical success and a financial failure. Winner of the prestigious Palme d’Or at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival, the combined star power of Pitt and the intrigue of Malick set the international film scene ablaze. However, the film faced a slew of distribution issues. Made for $32 million, it only took home $43 million worldwide: small peanuts in the film world. As it was only available in limited release, far too few people got to see this astounding feat of science fiction and humanity. I suggest you go rent it now and stick out the sometimes disorienting and frustrating experience of watching this film. It is well worth it.
As far as its Oscar future goes, it has some promise. Although the race is still early, its score by Alexandre Desplat is charmingly oblique and is deserving of a nod for Best Original Score. Pitt, as the crew-cut military hard head struggling against raw social class and his children’s waffling affections, is necessarily small and angry in his portrayal. I could see a nomination going his way, though I doubt it will bring him a win. 1/2 of Brangelina will just have to deal.
The Ophelia-esque Jessica Chastain has a hope, but her portrayal of Celia Foote in the alarmingly overrated The Help might edge out her more deserving performance in the Malick flick. Penn, unfortunately, is mildly forgettable as the brother in mourning. He is gravely underused and I don’t see the Academy pulling a Viola Davis and giving him a nom based on such limited screen time.
The picture itself could turn the Oscar voters off. It positively reeks of the patchouli stench of art house and works so hard to disorient the viewer, it is easy to see it being overlooked. In my opinion, this is an important film to garner one of the 10 coveted nominations for Best Picture. My biggest qualm with the Academy is that they too often reward the same formulaic type of films, year after year; (yeah, The King’s Speech and Slumdog Millionaire, I’m lookin’ at you). Subtly perverse and entirely jarring, The Tree of Life’s unique narrative style reminds me of nothing else. For no other reason that it will force movie going audiences out of their comfort zones, this should get the deserved attention from a nomination.
Did you see The Tree of Life? Do you have your own Oscar predictions? Are you sick of me? Let me know and comment!