Thursday, June 30, 2011
Years ago, a fraternity at San Jose State University mischievously sent two of its members to stand outside of the student union building, look up and point at the building. When they did, passing students stopped and looked up, too. What were they looking at? Nothing. The passing students were compelled to look at what others compelled them to look at.
And that’s Terrence Malick, he of The New World and 1978’s Days of Heaven. He’s looking up – in the case of The Tree of Life, up at God – and we are invited to look too. But he’s also questioning, of God: “What do You want from us?”
Not everyone wants to go there in a movie. Two people walked out of last weekend’s opening screening at the Osio Theatre. Another nearly fell asleep. But others stayed through the closing credits, talking and helping each other sort it out. All valid reactions, and here’s another: “There were once several directors who yearned to make no less than a masterpiece… Malick has stayed true to that hope.” That’s Roger Ebert.
The Tree of Life begins at the middle of its story, such as it even possesses what we call a “story.” (It unfolds more like a poem.) An all-American couple in 1950s Waco, Texas, receives word of an unspeakable tragedy. It unfolds in a wordless scene, done with naturalistic acting and choreography of movement from Brad Pitt as Mr. O’Brien (a tough, driven man who learns to doubt himself) and Jessica Chastain as his wife, Mrs. O’Brien (a creature of grace and forgiveness).
Then the film jumps back in time, to an idyllic suburb where the family is living their own perfect version of the American dream, where the three O’Brien brothers, as young boys, play and frolic like they’ve run right out of a Norman Rockwell illustration. Then the film absolutely drops all notion of the family we’ve just met and goes back further in time (way back), a breathtaking jump cut into a sequence now famously compared, by Ebert, to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Oddyssey.
Malick, the writer and director – the auteur – had warned us of the big, daring mission of his film. In theology and biology, a tree of life is a motif that, in broad terms, signifies the universe, creation, life and/or God. The film starts with a quote from God, from the Book of Job: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” Meaning, who are you to question Me?
But question we do, don’t we? Malick sure does. He’s a believer, but he has questions, and he wants answers. His whole film is a series of questions, musings, demands, whispered in shared voice-overs from the different characters. “I want to see what You see.” “Unless you love, your life will flash by.”
Jack, 11 years old, is played by a pitch-perfect and emotionally churning Hunter McCracken, who looks eerily like James Caviezel from Malick’s meditative WWII film The Thin Red Line. Jack is the eldest of the three O’Brien brothers, the one closest to adult understanding and acceptance of life’s finite rules, but still in touch with the child’s infinite imagination and wonder. His brothers R.L. (a sensitive Laramie Eppler) and Steve (a precocious Tye Sheridan) are still cocooned in childhood with unquestioning joy and unfearing vitality. Jack, as an emotionally withdrawn adult and successful corporate worker, is played with subdued and purposeful uncertainty by Sean Penn.
The few props in the sparse suburb of 1950s Waco, Texas (where Malick lived for a time), all perform vital functions. Like the DDT truck, looking like a malevolent ice-cream van, billowing fog through the neighborhood and reminding us of our own folly; lacy drapes brushed by the wind suggesting a harmony with nature; and the clothes, informing on the honest, plain character of the wearers. The music is a lush palette of orchestral strings that brushes depth into the cinematography, over breezy shots of rivers and summer sprinklers, swaying trees and inviting earth.
This meditative film seeks to encompass the Biblical and evolutionary, the improbably big and infinitesimally small; it is about humans and God, sons and fathers. An apt comment, via a visitor to the official website: “Malick sees through a microscope and also a telescope.” Will we be compelled to also look? In our own myriad ways, we already do. All the time.
THE TREE OF LIFE (3½) Directed by Terrence Malick. Starring Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, Jessica Chastain. Rated PG-13. At Osio Cinemas.