Saturday, July 2, 2011
The Tree of Life (***)
Written and Directed by Terrence Mallick
I defy anybody to give any kind of definitive opinion on The Tree of Life based on one viewing. Anyone. The film is too slippery. Too unwilling to stick to its own narrative which so desperately hangs around the film like an unwanted child. No, this is not a film that is meant to be consumed and then dissected by intellectuals - though, there is no doubt that that is what is happening across the country as the film makes its steady expansion to different theaters - but it is instead meant to be marveled as one of the single most transfixing visual experiences in a very, very long time.
To describe the plot seems to be an even more tedious task than trying to decipher it while your watching, but I'll give it my best shot. Jack (Hunter McCracken) is a young boy growing up in the rural South. His father (Brad Pitt) is a stern, old fashioned man who has taken a very hard line with him in an effort to quickly turn him into a man. His mother (Jessica Chastain) is an almost exact emotional opposite. She's kind and gentle; maternal in every sense of the word. Along with his two brothers, Jack is torn between these two opposing forces as he grows and learns, debating the meanings behind certain events. Debating the force of God which he has been taught to fear for his entire life.
As a grown man, Jack (now played by Sean Penn), is still fighting those demons, debating those life lessons. He sleepwalks through life, walking aimlessly through the over-modernized world where lights blur and architecture stands high. He's reached his forties, yet he is still as confused about the meaning of life as he was as a young boy. So he travels. Travels into the deeper crevices of the world, searching and searching for an answer. I'm not exactly sure an answer is ever found, though I don't think that was what Mallick really wanted to show. In the end, the creation of life always has the same exit ramps, whether it be Jack's life or the creation of the universe.
If that sounds vague as hell, just consider that this was me doing my best to make things simple. The Tree of Life is not a film that is highly concerned with a structured narrative. In many ways, it's cinema by James Joyce. It's constantly shape-shifting in a way that makes it difficult to get a tight grasp of the arc of the story that's being told. But perhaps there isn't an arc at all. Perhaps that's the point? In our day-to-day lives, we are not held prisoner to the contrived constructs of a movie screenplay. Is that Mallick's over-arching thesis? Only a fool (or a pompous pseudo-intellectual) would stand up and say that they have absolute proof of what Tree of Life is actually about. Creating your own interpretation seems inherent here.
Perhaps I'm dodging my reviewer responsibilities, but I just think I'd be doing myself a disservice trying to pretend like I have one strong, thorough opinion about this film. I certainly liked it to a certain degree. It did innovative things with the camera that I felt like I've never seen before (if Emmanuel Lubezki doesn't get that much deserved Oscar for this, I don't know if the Academy would ever be able to forgive itself) and it was edited with a brilliant flourish of movement that helps push the film's sometimes stagnant 138-minute running time. These are two amazing traits that the film has that cannot be ignored. But debating the thematic meaning? I have a feeling I could watch this film twenty times and still have issues with that one.
But this isn't really anything new when it comes to a filmmaker as cryptic as Terrence Mallick. Having been making films for over 35 years, he's developed a reputation for being particularly pensive (some would say slow) with his stories, but always Earth-shattering with his level of filmmaking. Nobody shoots landscapes better, and I feel like I can say that pretty definitively. Whether it be the rural spaces of Badlands and Days of Heaven or the WWII terrain of Japan in The Thin Red Line, he has always considered the atmosphere as a key component to the stories he tells. With The Tree of Life, Mallick is using the entire Earth as his canvas, and the impressive ways with which he able to showcase various sections leaves you worrying little about how shady the storyline may be.
This is eerily similar to my initial viewing of A Serious Man, but with that film I was trying to decide simply what the narrative meant. Here, I'm just trying to decide if there is any narrative at all. There are things that I know. Fabulous cinematography, fabulous filmmaking in general, and despite one of the loosest stories in the history of American cinema, it actually holds a bevy of fantastic performances, including Pitt, Penn, McCracker and especially Chastain, who single-handedly brings a heart to this otherwise chilly film. Other than that, my opinions on this film are as unpredictable as life itself. Perhaps, like a tree, it will grow on me.