The Tree of Life, Part One

Why so late? Well, I don’t live in a big city, I’m very busy outside of my life of seeing films, and films don’t play very long anymore before being pulled. If I want to catch them in the theater, where I should have seen this, I have to more diligent about catching them quickly. So I decided to see it a few days on my OK, not-tiny-but-not-big TV on DVD. Am hoping that it’s nominated for enough Oscars to justify a re-release in the theaters, but I’m not getting my hopes up. So I saw it at home. Still–wow.

Director Terrence Malick may not have created a whole new language for film with The Tree of Life, but he certainly has a new and fresh dialect going on. Yes, it’s audacious, reaching for both heights and depths that few films can conceive of. It would be easy to focus on the cosmic issues are work here, and they are central, powerful, and integral to what he’s doing.

But what intrigued me the most was the way Malick told his story, and especially his story-within-the-story of a young man in fifties Texas. He comes at his plot of family life from an angle, with his camera always moving around, pushing forward, pushing forward, pushing forward. Family discussions and dynamics aren’t presented; they’re caught, and then we move on. It works to make the thoughts and actions of a young boy and his family, especially his parents, all of a piece with issues such as, oh, the existence of God, the creation of the world, and the end of the world. If that sounds pretentious, it’s not, and the film doesn’t feel that way at all. His approach has been called impressionistic, and that’s partly accurate in its look and use of light (incredible) and movement. But Malick goes deep at moments, into thoughts and behaviors and feelings that are specific and real, all without stopping the onward momentum of the film. We feel as if we get to know this family, and especially this young man played with such feeling and precision by Hunter McCracken.

Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain as the parents have rightly received a great deal of praise for their performances. Both have already won awards for this performance in conjunction with other triumphs of the year (Pitt for Moneyball and Chastain for The Help, The Debt, Take Shelter, and Coriolanus—yes, she’s had quite the year). I highlight in conjunction because these performances have the same challenge as the actors in a Hitchcock film. These are both performances that can be studied for years—Pitt inhabits this character, and Chastain plays a walking dream and a real person at the same time—but as with Hitchcock films, it is ultimately the director who is the star. If either actor had only done this one film this past year, I daresay there would be praise, but no awards.

Not sure why five editors were needed—don’t recall ever seeing that many listed before—but as with early (1920s) Russian/Soviet films, this film has been assembled, constructed. That’s not an insult, but the highest praise. It takes a great deal of work to have something with so many parts flow so smoothly. The world this film creates is unique—a word I don’t use often and don’t like to. Yes, there is a strong sense of place in mid-century Texas, but this is not a family drama essentially. It’s not even the story of one young man, who has grown up to be a painfully pained Sean Penn. That’s the plot, but not the story. The story is life, transition, creation, death, humanity, deity and grace, and Malick and associates have created a look and pace that respects the issues the film raises and suggests.

The only weakness is the Sean Penn portion of the present. This portion of the film is slick, gorgeous, and neither specific nor cosmic enough to fit in with the rest of the film. While trying to hold the film together narratively, and helping with where Malick is going at the end, the Penn scenes don’t connect emotionally with the McCracken scenes of the character as a young boy.

But this is a minor carping. What we have with The Tree of Life is simply the most extraordinary film of the year, and perhaps many a year. It’s not going to entertain everyone, to be sure. That’s not its goal. Its subjects and one’s interpretations of those subjects have fueled and will fuel many discussions through the years, and it’s the rare American film that will even suggest that such cosmic issues be taken seriously. But beyond that, this is a stunningly beautiful, moving piece of artistic craftsmanship. Time will tell what effect The Tree of Life will have, but Malick has created a film that has pulled up the entire art form. Watch for its effect throughout the years.

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About Mark DuPré

Full-time (associate) pastor at a Christian church. Part-time film professor at Rochester Institute of Technology. Husband for 40 years to the lovely and talented Diane. Father to three children and father-in-law to three more amazing people. I preach, teach, counsel, write and plan in my real job. I teach a subject I love at RIT in my "other job," which is a lot of fun most of the time.... I play piano for our local college choir, and sing and play at church occasionally. I also have a film-related website at www.film-prof.com.
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