05 June 2011

Picking Up A Few Acorns

I fear I must insist you see Terence Malick's new film "The Tree of Life." I'm not normally a shill for the latest movie or book, but in this case you'll thank me.

I don't know quite how to put it, but I'll try: there were moments in this film when I found myself pinned to the back of my seat—even more so than in, say, the flying sequences of "Top Gun" or the driving sequences of "Days of Thunder"—breathless, clinging to the arms of the chair, riveted to the screen, afraid to move because I might miss some minute, meaningful detail of the experience. But that's me.

You can track down any number of reviews on the Web. Anthony Lane's in The New Yorker is a good place to start. But the ones I've seen miss what I take to be the point of the piece.

The first two scenes set the table, leisurely introducing the characters, the crisis, the pace, the idiom, the imagery, the voice, etc. Every frame seems about to burst apart with meaning. Then, there is an abstract sequence about the creation of the universe—reminiscent of that in "2001: A Space Odyssey," but much more pointed and, as Lane points out, coherent. After which, we get back to the main story line—Jack O'Brien's mid-life angst.

Most reviews I've read, tell us this film is Malick's "prayer" or his "message". This, I feel, misreads the movie. The film does pose the Miltonian question of how to justify the ways of God to men. Specifically, how can we relate in our Ur-situation [that's my word] of mortal loss and grief to the majestic, cosmic forces that created the vast Universe in which we find ourselves? Malick does not, however, answer the question. I take away no authorial message. And all the better.

We do, however, get the answers of his principal characters: Mr. O'Brien's (Brad Pitt) solution is to conquer his disappointment and grief by struggling to build big, lasting monuments to the ego. Mrs. O'Brien's (Jessica Chastain) solution is to love it all, good and evil, when we have it and, when it goes, release it all back to the infinite in the same spirit. Jack's (Sean Penn), their son, solution is to wrestle with the soul and wander about, lost, along the shores of memory, seeking out the infinite, searching for the transcendent in a world where it does not readily present itself: the search itself being the BRIDGE. [Maybe he's supposed to be a cut-out for Malick, but that's not for me to say.]

This is the artistry of the narrative. But the artistry of the film extends to the cinematography, the soundtrack, the imagery, the dialogue—in short, it is a masterpiece that uses all the elements of the medium to craft a work of art.

There are moments of surpassing beauty. There are moments of shocking violence—but only insofar as they are moments of true intimacy and trust betrayed. There are moments where souls are riven, and evil intrudes on the basic goodness and innocence of the young. There are many moments when the music is simply transporting.

All-in-all "The Tree of Life" is a movie where you have to work for the meaning, but it all works together so beautifully that the experience leaves you, as I said, breathless.

Please, do yourself a favor. See it. I took Wesdom and some other high schoolers. There were some tears. There were some questions. They want to see it again. They've gone to see "X-Men" now.

One hole in the story has to do with the third O'Brien son. He seems to get lost, and one suspects Malick had to banish his story to the cutting room floor. As it is, the film comes in at about 2:30.

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