Monday, May 28, 2012

Film Review: "The Tree of Life" (***1/2)

With the Cannes Film Festival landscape all wrapped up now, one could say that the festival hasn't truly ended yet. After all, the films that appeared there will continue to trickle into release over the next several months, and the feeling still inevitably lingers long after that. I remember last year's festival as a potent memory, and in fact last year was such a dynamic year in cinema that couldn't possibly be ignored or overlooked. And in the several months that passed after that, I became specifically jaded against Terrence Malick's "The Tree of Life". Mind you, that was a very negative time for me personally, and not necessarily the best time to be writing up film reviews.

Truth is, I never gave Malick's film a chance in the first place. I never really payed attention to it beyond the first screening, and in the several months that passed I allowed my view of the film to become distorted. I wanted it to be so, which kind of gave me a leg out of the hoopla that many found themselves in. The film registers different perspectives from nearly every person who sees it, which challenged me in a way I wasn't ready for. I'm a rather selfish moviegoer, and I expect a film to be something specific, even if it isn't my something. I just couldn't pin down the film, in all its ethereal mist, and it led me to landing on what seemed like a definitive condemning mark: Pretentious.

So why even bring it up now at all, after all has been stated so well by nearly every single other person out there? It already went home empty-handed at this year's Academy Awards, and that's mostly because of people like me. There are far too many people who just never gave the film a chance. A couple of months ago I was talking with a fellow student who also has a kind of passion for certain cinema. We were talking about "The Tree of Life", but he truthfully never continued with the film after the first 25 minutes or so. He got lost somewhere in the creation of the universe sequence, and simply gave up after that. Never even made it to the dinosaurs.

That is exactly the sort of ignorance that simply cannot, and really shouldn't, exist in the world of cinema today. I really wouldn't even be venturing back around to this if it weren't for two things. The second of those is an endeavor to not be so clinically minded in my reviewing of films. Isn't it just too easy to be steely and cold? It's the abandoning of that trait that has allowed me to truly embrace "Mirror Mirror" as such a stellar, hilarious, and gorgeous piece of cinema. Who's to say that couldn't happen for me again when going back into the belly of Terrence Malick's latest film? People seem to be in a rush anticipating his next film. Who's to say we're not done with this one?

But that wasn't what got me back into the mindset of "The Tree of Life". What has gotten me circling relentlessly back around the film recently was my grandfather on my father's side. Over the past two months his condition has been deteriorating, as is often the case after losing their partner of many years. It's an emotional response that pervades its way even down to a biological response. So it's been generally difficult to get that feeling out of my head, and it's been weighing on me. The prevailing tether that I've had to "The Tree of Life", since the very first time I saw it, was how close and damn inseparable Brad Pitt's performance as father was to my father, and even more by extension to his father.

You cannot really access Malick's film from any standpoint except one of the intensely personal. It's not a shared experience, since most word is spoken in soft whisper or intentionally measured against the background. The film's structure is odd, to say the least, since there is a long stretch detailing the tumultuous childhood of Jack, and that is truly what this film is about. It just happens to be bookended by two sequences that seem rather ambiguous in nature, the latter more than the former. The opening to the film is actually quite poetic and startling from the word go as we learn that one of the boys we've barely been introduced to at all has died.

Having not even met the characters fully, this moment is devastating to watch, as the reactions of Jessica Chastain and Brad Pitt's characters are played without music or cinematic interference. It's observational to its core, showing the still sound atmosphere in relation to Chastain, and in contrast the overabundance of sound to Pitt's realization. We see Chastain from the back, and Pitt from the front, up close to his face. From there, all the comfort in the world seems so unwanted. The designation of "how the lord works" comes to take greater meaning in the following sequence, which truly sweeps us away to the beginnings of the universe.

This cosmic light shows up at different intervals of the film, coming from the darkness and growing in brightness. It serves as this symbol of creation out of emptiness, though it seems rather superfluous when it shows up at the very end of the film. I'm not quite sure what Malick is trying to say with that, since his inclusion of the extra-universal sequences seems to push his ideas of family and belief beyond even his own grasp. The origins of the universe sequence is such a sequence that he does seem to lose its grasp a little bit, but it is nonetheless extraordinary to view. From the lyrical and pounding chorus of "Lacrimosa" at the universe coming into mystical shape, it is comparable to the formation of single cells. In all its glorious beauty, the universe is a very small thing.

But if Malick doesn't show as much control of the universal section of the film, it's because he is intimately focused on the personal aspects of the film. A compassionate and slight scene involving dinosaurs takes a rather base sentiment that could have been done with any other animals, and begs the question of why it's dinosaurs. You can't look at "The Tree of Life" and truly believe that everything we're being shown is there for no reason at all. The weight of each scene is measured carefully, with the obliteration of the dinosaur era coming with ease and simplicity. Things come and go, but what matters are the gestures we make in between. That is an idea Malick is pitching home quite fervently.

What follows that "Birth of the Universe" segment comes what the film is truly about, and that 80+ minutes is what I would absolutely qualify as a masterpiece of cinema. If it simply existed on its own, we may very well have heralded it as such based on its own willing simplicity. Suffice it to say that Malick has much greater ambitions for this tale, and that in and of itself is significant. The universe creation section would work to amplify most given films, but Malick decides very firmly that it's this film for him to do it with. He's not going to get a chance to change his mind on it. The story of this 60s suburban family is important in the grand scheme of the universe.

The way Jack is brought into the world is handled with so much grace. One shot, which is inevitably bound for a place on the TOP 10 SHOTS for this film, shows light reeling throughout the house before vanishing once again, all the while the mother and father get ever closer to one another. Even the pain of birth is subverted by auditory emphasis on the sheets around the mother's body. The introduction of Jack into the world is one of joyful astonishment. The world as he sees it, which is little more than the house, is such a vibrant and exploratory environment. Everyone is embracing and happy to see Jack into the world. Everything in the world is full of discovery, with none of the oppressive weight.

The introduction of a second child into this environment is the first hint at the dangers of this perfect world. Everything he thought was so special is not uniquely tuned to him. He thought that the world was his, and his relationship to his brother is forever planted as one of confrontation. As the children grow older, the sense of discovery changes from one of wonder to disturbance. All the questions of the world seem to rush to the fore so obviously, tormenting Jack by refusing to give him an answer. "The Tree of Life" becomes an absolutely dangerous study of childhood and the wrong turns that can so easily be made.

Nor does it decide to leave behind the conflict of the parents, who are wrestling over the way their children will be raised. These representations of the way of nature and the way or grace seem so simply to balk at, but Malick defines them so strongly that there is no middle ground. That makes the confrontation between mother and father so explosive, and it lashes out to estrange and confuse the way these boys react to the world. Malick lets Jack's crisis pan out almost to a point where there isn't a positive reconciliation, but brings things back from the brink with the salient point of the film. Worlds come and go, as will we with time, and we are but a speck. We are not important. What we do, and what that means, is.

That is almost so delicately handled, until the final twenty minutes of the film. For everything before that is so lyrical, smooth, and graceful, the ending to the film is ultimately inaccessible. The emotions and meanings of the film are said far too bluntly, with the relationships too laid far to bare to the foreground. It's certainly not ambiguous, and it's saying something very clear. It's just rather impossible to reconcile what that is to the two hours we had already witnessed. It is quite an anomaly, and it goes to some lengths to sully the film's rating. Without it, what a gorgeous and affecting film it is. With it, it's weighed down.

I am not cold enough to bring down the rating for what is, for all intents and purposes, a masterpiece, due to an ending that neither aids nor discounts what came before. It is a flaw, and a glaring one at that, but in no way does it obliterate the sublime nature of what came before. Even a year after the first viewing, I still have difficulty finding the words to describe it. "Pretentious" is a word I used a lot a year ago, and that is a word that should never be doled out lightly. It is so close to a condemning statement for a feature, as well as a cruel accusation against a director. Malick is certainly not one to be labeled as such, and to do so with this film as basis is quite an incalculable risk.


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