Sunday, June 05, 2011

The Tree of Life

Though he had only had made four films from 1973 to 2005, Terrence Malick remains one of the most influential and revered filmmakers of American cinema. With everyone such as Wong Kar-Wai, Sofia Coppola, Quentin Tarantino, David Gordon Green, and many others cite him as an influential figure in films. He’s also someone that actors would want to work with no matter what the film is about or if they’ll even be in the final cut. Yet, he remains one of the most enigmatic directors in cinema with many wondering about his work process and why he cuts his films to the last minute. Especially for the fact that he doesn’t give any interviews nor does any publicity relating to his projects.

For years since the release of his second film Days of Heaven in 1978, the cult of Malick has grown among film buffs, aspiring filmmakers, and actors. The release of 1998’s The Thin Red Line helped Malick reach a new generation of film buffs as it would lead to a re-discovery of his work including his 1973 debut film Badlands. The release of 2005’s The New World was met with high anticipation among film buffs as some wondered what Malick would do next if was to make another film. In 2007, rumors emerged that Malick was in preparation of a new project and the big surprise was what the project is.

Back in 1978 after the completion of Days of Heaven, Malick was developing a project for Paramount that was entitled Q. A film that was to center around the origins of life on Earth which was to feature dinosaurs as part of a prologue. The project was supposed to be Malick’s follow-up as it reached the pre-production stages. Instead, the project fell apart as Malick would go on a 20-year sabbatical from the world of filmmaking. Following the release of The New World and the enthusiasm Malick has received from his cult following along with fellow filmmakers. Malick went ahead to revive Q into a much more personal project that is entitled The Tree of Life.

Written and directed by Terrence Malick, The Tree of Life tells the story of a young boy growing up in American Midwest in the 1950s as he later becomes a lost soul as an adult in the modern world. The film recalls all of the visual imagery and poetic voice-over narration of all of Malick’s films in the past. Even as it questions the way the world works as the boy in the film is torn by his parents’ dueling ideologies that would lead to the loss of innocence that would haunt him years later as a man. Starring Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, Jessica Chastain, Fiona Shaw, Irene Bedard, and introducing Hunter McCracken. The Tree of Life is a majestic and exhilarating piece of art from Terrence Malick.

It’s the 1950s as a married couple in Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien (Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain, respectively) live in a quiet, peaceful environment in Waco, Texas. They would gain three sons in Jack (Hunter McCracken), R.L. (Laramie Eppler), and Steve (Tye Sheridan) as Mr. O’Brien runs a nearby plant while creating patents that he hopes would make him rich. During this period of growing up, the boys would learn the ways of life as their mother offers grace and peace while their father reveals that being good isn’t enough as they had to fight to get what they want. For Jack, the dueling ideologies his parents offer would impact his life during the year.

Following the death of a boy (Tyler Thomas), Jack’s view of the world changes as he would harbor his father’s view of the world as he intrigued by a young girl from his school and a woman who lives around his neighborhood. Angered by his father’s strict ways and at his mother’s refusal to stand up to him, he begins to defy his parents while becoming more confused by God himself. Following a big change for the family, tragedy happens as it would impact the O’Briens immensely. Even as Jack (Sean Penn) in his adult life feels lost in the modern world trying to find answers.

The years when a child grows up to understand the world from what he knew then and what he would know later on is a crucial period in that person’s life. Yet, it would also be the moment where a child not just loses his innocence but also begins to question about the wonders of the world. What Terrence Malick creates is something much broader than just a boy’s loss of innocence but also in how tragedy impacts a boy’s life into his journey as a man lost in a world he couldn’t relate to. Even as he tries to wrestle between his mother’s sense of grace and mercy and his father’s idea of fierce will.

The film doesn’t actually begin with this narrative about the O’Briens but opens with a couple of quotes from the Book of Job (Ch. 38-4 & 7). The story of Job would also appear in a scene where the O’Briens attend church as it reminds audience about God’s will where he gives and then takes. This leads to a brief montage of images relating to death and the tragedy the O’Briens would eventually face throughout the film. Then it leads to a marvelous sequence of images including outer space, volcanoes, and dinosaurs that revolves around Earth’s evolution. Many will question what does these scene have to do with the main narrative. Well, it doesn’t have to do anything with the main narrative but anyone that goes to the Book of Job quote will think it’s all part of something much bigger.

The main narrative of the O’Briens’ family life and Jack’s evolution in his age of 11 definitely has something audiences can relate to. In many ways, the film is a coming of age story but also a film about innocence lost that is taken to a grander scale. While a lot of the ideas about a man reflecting on his childhood has a premise that is similar to Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1975 film The Mirror. The difference between this and Tarkovsky’s film is that Malick brings in more questions and has tighter structure to his story along with a more central focus on its characters. Notably Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien and Jack as they each have voice-overs questioning their existence and the ways of the world.

Malick’s script, or lack thereof, does allow the audience to get to know the family. While R.L. and Steve don’t get much coverage, their observance into the behavior of the film would impact young Jack as he is torn between his parents’ dueling ideology. In turn, Malick lets the audience see the young Jack be confused and frustrated with this new outlook on life as he vents his anger on God and his parents. Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien both represent different sides as Mr. O’Brien is a stern disciplinarian trying to prepare his sons for a harsh world with Mrs. O’Brien as this gentle, angelic woman who lets them wander. Both are flawed and aware of it as they would duke it out once in a while. Yet, they’re human and what is expected in parents as it is clear that kids would become their parents in some form as they struggle to find some acceptance right in the end.

Malick’s direction definitely has him taking this simple story of a family in 1950s Texas into a much larger scale. While Malick maintains an intimacy and a free-flowing style of direction by allowing the camera to follow the family. Taking use of various shooting styles whether its hand-held, tracking shots, steadicams, and crane shots to capture this simple world of a family’s house and following a young boy’s growth away from childhood. Malick brings a naturalistic yet impressionist view of this family’s life as it’s shot largely on location in Smithville, Texas with other towns and cities in that state. The potency of Malick’s direction is mystifying in his scenes of the modern world where the shots of skyscrapers from above or on ground help exemplify the adult Jack’s sense of alienation.

While some of the scenes in the film’s main narrative features shots inspired by Andrei Tarkovsky including a scene where Mrs. O’Brien levitates that is a reference to The Mirror. Many of the film’s scenes involving the creation of Earth and its landscapes including wavering light that appears throughout the film will get some viewers to think of Stanley Kubrick. There is a Kubrickian element to many of the creation scenes as its mixture of computer visual effects, old-school visual effects, and naturalistic camera work that is partially supervised by Douglas Trumbull, the man who did some of the visual effects work for 2001: A Space Odyssey. These scenes of Earth’s creation along with these marvelous images of nature are truly some of the greatest sequences ever made as Malick takes it to new heights.

The overall direction that Malick creates is astounding as he creates a film that is truly one-of-a-kind. It raises many questions about spirituality, humanity, existence, and a whole lot more while not giving any answers. At times, the film meanders which will be frustrating to watch at times. Yet, that is typical of Malick who takes his time with the pacing so that audiences can figure out a time period where things were much simpler and slower. The scenes near the end of the film does raise much broader questions about death and the afterlife as Malick creates something that goes beyond the language of film. What Malick does overall as an auteur is create something in a large scale that challenges its audience but doesn’t overwhelm them with any kind of message. With this films, Malick truly takes his place as one of the greatest artists working today.

Helming the film’s cinematography is Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki who previously worked with Malick on The New World. Chivo’s photography is truly marvelous to watch in the way he creates a naturalistic look to the film as it is exquisite in every frame captured on film. For many of the scenes in Smithville, Chivo creates something that is beautiful but also has a flair of nostalgia while the scenes in the cities are vast in its imagery. With additional photography by Ellen Kuras and Benoit Delhomme for small shots in New York and France, respectively, Chivo’s camera work is truly out of this world as he creates what is certainly his best camera work of his career.

Editors Billy Weber, Hank Corwin, Daniel Rezende, Jay Rabinowitz, and Mark Yoshikawa do a fantastic job with the editing of the film. Weber, a longtime Malick associate, states that when editing a film for Malick, editing everyone else’s films are easy as it’s clear that a lot of work went into the cutting of the film. While the film has the typical pacing approach of all of Malick’s other films, the editing has more flair to its approach. Even in the creation sequence as there’s speedy cuts and half-frame speeds to complement Earth’s evolution while the rest of it is mostly straightforward with elements of style in some parts of the film.

Longtime Malick collaborator in production designer Jack Fisk, along with set decorator Jeanette Scott and art director David Crank, does a phenomenal job with the look of the O‘Briens home as well as the look of 1950s Waco, Texas. Fisk and his team create something that is magical of a simpler time while the home of the O’Briens along with its tree and backyard is presented with great detail of a typical 1950s suburban home. It is truly a joy to look as Fisk and company bring life to the world of 1950s Texas. Costume designer Jacqueline West does an excellent job with the costumes from the suits that the men and boys wear to the dresses that Mrs. O’Brien wears as it has a distinct, 1950s look that truly plays to that era.

Visual effects supervisor Dan Glass and legendary visual effects consultant Douglas Trumbull do a spectacular job with the visual effects sequences made for the Creation sequence. A mixture of old-school 1960s visual effects style along with computer-created visual effects, it is truly beyond description from the look of outer-space and planets that has something that looks like it was made in 3-D without the 3-D effects that is seen in a lot films. Even the dinosaurs has a look that might seem a little sketchy but a closer look allows to see the beauty of it. The overall visual effects work is truly out of this world and really sets a benchmark of what could be done in terms of a film like this.

Sound designers Craig Berkey and Erik Aadahl do an amazing job with the sound work from the naturalistic atmosphere of the scenes in Smithville to the little towns and places nearby. Even with the voice-overs as it brings an ethereal quality to what is happening. For the Creation of Earth sequence, the sound is more forceful and lifelike to describe the way Earth is created as the overall work is masterful.

The film’s music soundtrack that is supervised by Roanna Gillespie is truly another highlight of the film with its array of classical and operatic pieces to the original score from Alexandre Desplat. While Desplat’s score is used sparesly throughout the film with its soft piano peaces and eerie orchestral arrangements. Desplat is able to play up the mixture of joy and anger in the characters and scenes as it features some of his best work as a composer.

The rest of the film’s soundtrack features a variety of pieces ranging from church hymns to the works of composers like Gustav Mahler, Arsenjie Jovanovic, Michael Baird, Klaus Wiese, Henryk Gorecki, Francois Couperin, Johann Sebastian Bach, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and many others. The two pieces that play throughout the film are Bedrich Smetana’s Vltava (The Moldau), in the main narrative, and Zbigniew Preisner’s Lacrimosa 2 for the Creation sequence. The overall film score and soundtrack is truly one of best collection of music ever assembled for a film like this.

The casting by Francine Maisler and Vicky Boone is amazing for the discovery of actors that appear in the film. In small film roles, the cast features appearances from Will Wallace as an associate of Jack‘s work as an architect, Jessica Fuselier as a mystical guide, Irene Bedard as a spiritual messenger, Joanna Going as Jack’s wife, Tyler Thomas as the boy Jack sees drown, Kelly Koone as the local preacher in church, and Fiona Shaw in a small but memorable appearance as Jack’s grandmother. Other notable small roles in the younger versions of Jack are played by Finnegan Williams and Michael Koeth in the respective ages of 2 and 5 along with John Howell as the two-year old R.L. Sean Penn is great in a small but understated performance as the adult Jack who is more confused and haunted by his own life as well as the tragedy he’s dealing with.

Laramie Eppler and Tye Sheridan are excellent in their small but memorable roles as R.L. and Steve, respectively. Eppler and Sheridan bring a joyful yet naturalistic quality to their performance with Eppler as the middle-child with a talent to play guitar and Sheridan as the youngest who is amazed by his brothers. Brad Pitt is superb in the complex role of Mr. O’Brien, a tough man who loves his family but is desperate to succeed so he can give them a great life. Yet, Pitt displays a man who tries to show his boys the harsh idea of the world as he makes Mr. O’Brien into a flawed man who has good intentions but knows that he can be wrong as well.

Jessica Chastain is brilliant in the angelic role of Mrs. O’Brien. Displaying grace and radiance into a character that is so pure but also human for the way she deals with grief. It’s a real breakthrough performance for the actress as she brings a quality that is unlike anything out there in film as it’s a truly engaging yet ethereal performance from the young actress. Finally, there’s Hunter McCracken in an outstanding performance as the young Jack. McCracken displays a performance that is very realistic and complex about an 11-year old boy coming-of-age where he begins to asks big questions and ponder about the world and his parents. It’s really a performance that is up to par with other break-out performances in Malick’s previous films such as Sissy Spacek’s Holly in Badlands, Linda Manz’s Linda in Days of Heaven, Jim Caviezel’s Private Witt in The Thin Red Line, and Q’orianka Kilcher’s Pocahontas in The New World. It is truly an amazing debut for the young actor.

To say a film like The Tree of Life is a masterpiece or a one-of-a-kind film kind of understates the power it has. It is much more than that as the experience of watching a film like this in a cinema is beyond anything to describe. It’s not a film for everyone which isn’t surprising with all of Terrence Malick’s films. Yet, it does have something that audiences will reach back to in their own lives and recall their own childhood. It’s a film that also allows anyone who is religious or anti-religious to question about God and his will whether they believe it or not. A religious audience might be baffled by its complexity and lack of message that is often prevalent in Christian-based films.

The Tree of Life is truly a film that will polarize people and even at first viewing, it is difficult to comprehend and understand. Yet, it has images and themes that are truly inescapable and allows that person to understand maybe themselves or the world itself. There aren’t many pictures like this and probably never will be in many years as Terrence Malick created something that goes beyond the idea of what cinema and art is and can be. The Tree of Life is without a doubt, a film like nothing else that has come before or since then. While it may not be as good as Malick’s other films like Days of Heaven or The Thin Red Line in terms of conventional storytelling. It is a testament that Malick is currently among the greats in either film or art. The Tree of Life is definitely a beautiful yet mesmerizing film from Terrence Malick.

Terrence Malick Films: Badlands - Days of Heaven - The Thin Red Line - The New World - To the Wonder - Knight of Cups - Voyage of Time: The IMAX Experience - (Voyage of Time: Life's Journey) - Song to Song - A Hidden Life - (The Way of the Wind)

© thevoid99 2011


Andy Buckle said...

Wow. A very complex and thorough analysis Steven. It sounds like it is the visual spectacle we have all been expecting, but with ambitions that are near impossible to capture in a feature length film. Still really looking forward to it, despite the polarised opinions. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

thevoid99 said...

Thanks Andy. This was not an easy film to review. It took me to days to complete though I just went back and did a few tweaks on it.

I hope to see it again when it goes wide but man, it's an experience like nothing that is going on right now in film or anything else.

Castor said...

Very impressive review Steven. I saw this yesterday and was left stunned, speechless by what I had seen. Absolutely loved Pitt's performance, he really did a lot with little dialogue. Hunter McCracken was also outstanding. Chastain was exactly as I picture Malick's essence of using his actresses with very little dialogue, and a lot of "being" in the moment. He is truly underrated as a director of actor.

thevoid99 said...

@Castor-I'm still stunned by the film itself. The performances are exactly what I expected and more. I think Malick allowed the actors to just act naturally and let them find the character in the performance. I think that's why actors want to work with him. He lets them bring in their A game.

Anonymous said...

As usual, another epic and well detailed review. Hats off to the level of detail you put into this one.

Yes, it's such a grand and overwhelming film with so many questions I can't wait to grapple with upon repeat viewings. Still, my initial viewing was a bit frustrating and disappointing. Certain scenes just felt like too much. Even though I find Malick's films lingering, no scene has every felt unnecessarily drawn out until I saw the creation sequence.

Also, thank's for pointing out the Preisner piece. I knew it had to be his piece, but thought I must be crazy.

thevoid99 said...

@Cinemasights-Thank you. I admit, there's moments where I was starting to get frustrated because it felt longer than 138-minutes. I was wondering what was going to happen and then came that moment in the main narrative when Mr. O'Brien returns with some news. That put away my frustrations and such.

I hope when it goes wide, we all get a chance to have a second take on this film. There's never going to be anything like this for many years.

Hell, how the hell is Terry going to top this?

Castor said...

I hear his next movie with Ben Affleck and Rachel McAdams is "even more experimental". That could mean anything but having just seen The Tree of Life... damn ahah

thevoid99 said...

@Castor-If it is, then we're in for another ride of confusion and such. Wait, what about Voyage of Time, the IMAX documentary?

Jeez, Terry is on a roll. And someone suggested he should direct the sequel to Zoolander.

Oh brother, could you imagine a film about Zoolander directed by Terrence Malick?

"Who am I? Why am I so ridiculously good looking? And why is Hansel is so hot?"