The Tree of Life

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By Marc Glassman

The Tree of Life
Terence Malick, director and writer
Emmanuel Lubezki, cinematographer
Starring: Brad Pitt (Mr. O’Brien), Sean Penn (Jack), Jessica Chastain (Mrs. O’Brien), Hunter McCracken (Young Jack), Laramie Eppler (R.L.), Tye Sheridan (Steve), Kari Matchett (Jack’s Ex), Joanna Going (Jack’s wife)
Featuring music by: Mahler, Berlioz, Brahms, François Couperin, Bach, Smetena, Holst, Górecki, Tavener, and others, alongside original cues by Alexandre Desplat

“Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation…while the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?”–The Book of Job
Malick’s classical selections span the entire spectrum of human emotion, from the darkest regions to the most luminous.–Alex Ross, The New Yorker
Palme d’Or winner, Cannes, 2011

Terence Malick’s new film arrives in Canadian theatres today weighted down by the biggest prize offered at Cannes, and the hopes and fears of cinephiles in this nation and elsewhere. Malick’s small but impressive body of work, which includes Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line, has been hailed for decades for its impressive cinematography, expressionistic film scores and mystical approach to narrative.

Detractors–and this film has attracted them as have the others—point out the stories often don’t cohere with the director’s glorious artistic stance, that there is something incoherent in his approach to art and cinema. But many consider Malick to be the finest English-language filmmaker since Kubrick–and they’ve pinned their hopes on Tree of Life being the new 2001.

Neither camp is far wrong.

Malick hired Douglas Trumbull, the man who created Kubrick’s acclaimed effects for 2001 to work with him on Tree of Life. The collaboration is often truly magical. There are scenes recreating the birth of the world, as expressed though the Big Bang theory–and even shots of dinosaurs that truly evoke Kubrick’s iconic counter-cultural sci-fi epic.

Those sequences play uneasily next to a story of a boy growing up in small town Texas. Young Jack’s life seems ideal at first–a loving mother, two adoring brothers, a big house on a tree-lined street: perfect for a lad in the Fifties, or now. But that’s before we get to truly comprehend Mr. O’Brien, a fierce and passionate man, given to bursts of nearly hysterical anger that swiftly change into moments of chagrin and loving embraces. Brad Pitt as the nearly manic-depressive elder O’Brien gives a strong performance–but what does the O’Brien’s tale have to do with the film’s ecstatic approach to religion?

Opening with the quotation from the Book of Job, the film uses a sublime visual style to convey the sorrow felt by Mrs. O’Brien when she finds out that her teenaged son is dead. Moving effortlessly back and forth in time, we see the O’Brien family in Texas and the adult Jack (Sean Penn), an architect, who is still haunted by his brother’s death. The tree that he sees in front of his office building triggers his own memory; it’s his “madeleine,” the Proustian cake which spurs his reminisces.

Malick’s film strays off course when it moves more precisely into Jack’s vision of his past. His youthful follies–breaking into a neighbour’s house, leading his younger brother astray—are matched by the excesses of his father, beating the kids, fighting with Jack’s mother. Eventually, his somewhat painful “paradise” is broken up when Jack’s dad loses his job and the family is forced to move.

Tree of Life is a remarkable film and, as time goes by, it may emerge as a masterpiece. Scenes that could be mundane–the adult Jack walking in an office building, the boys playing in the back yards, everyone walking on a beach–are sublime, thanks to Emmanuel Lubezki’s remarkable cinematography, Malick’s direction and the use of some of the finest music in the classical canon, ranging from Mahler’s First Symphony to Brahms’ Fourth.

It may not add up to much on a philosophical level but Tree of Life—even now–is a gorgeous film. Classical 96’s audience should see it–even if many will feel the need to criticize it.

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