Sunday, June 12, 2011
Tree of Life
I knew absolutely nothing about this film going into it except that it was written and directed by Terrence Malick, starring Brad Pitt and Sean Penn, and won the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival. But that alone told me to be prepared for what I was about to see. Anybody who knows anything about Malick, who's greatly respected by hard core film buffs for 'Badlands', 'Days of Heaven', 'The Thin Red Line', and 'The New World', knows that you better arrive at the theater wide awake and be prepared for a slowly paced, thoughtful film. He's a real artist and it's not uncommon for him to take five to seven years in between projects to get them just the way he wants them. (There was actually a 20 year gap between 1978's 'Days of Heaven' and 1998's 'The Thin Red Line'.) Aside from Malick, the Cannes Palm d'Or is generally not given out to a feel good film. They like them dark in France. And Penn and Pitt generally seek out material with gravitas. So buckle up, at 2 hours and 18 minutes this is either going to be a masterpiece or a long and painful ride. Or maybe both.
It's hard to describe the film. In part it's a very straightforward story about a working class family in Texas in the 1950's. Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain play the parents of three young boys, and Pitt is a loving, but hot tempered and nagging father who wants his kids to be better than he was. Sean Penn has a brief role as a grown up version of one of the kids. But what makes this film extremely different is how that story is juxtaposed with a more metaphysical, visual experience that seems to tackle the origin and meaning of life, with strong religious reference. It's hard to compare it to many other films, but it's certainly reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick's '2001: A Space Odyssey' in terms of pace and visual imagery. It's artistic and ambitious, to say the least.
So, does it succeed in it's ambition? Well, after my first viewing I honestly had no idea. I had prepared myself beforehand to be ready for whatever I was about to see, but yet I was still unprepared. So, after 138 minutes I decided to stay in the theater and immediately watch it again. And I rarely do that. But after my second viewing I had a better understanding of what it is and what it's trying to be. Yet I'm still not sure if it's a success or not. Ordinarily I believe an artistic, ambitious film like this should either get an A or an F. It's either a complete success or a complete failure. But in this case I don't think the answer is at the extremes. I really respect and liked what Malick was trying to create, and this is my favorite film of his to date, and I do believe it's his personal masterpiece. I didn't find it pretentious, although some may. In fact I think Malick may be the true heir to the Kubrickian throne, but perhaps only because there aren't any other suitable contenders. Unfortunately I just don't think this film totally worked or was completely fulfilling for me. But I honestly wish it did and it were because we don't get many films that aspire for so much. So, see it anyway.