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TREE OF LIFE, THE (director/writer: Terrence Malick; cinematographer: Emmanuel Lubezki; editors: Hank Corwin/Jay Rabinowitz/Daniel Rezende/Billy Weber/Mark Yoshikawa; music: Alexandre Desplat; cast: Brad Pitt (Mr. O’Brien), Sean Penn (Jack), Jessica Chastain (Mrs. O’Brien), Fiona Shaw (Grandmother), Irene Bedard (Messenger), Jessica Fuselier (Guide), Hunter McCracken (Young Jack), Laramie Eppler (R. L.), Tye Sheridan (Steve); Runtime: 139; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producers: Brad Pitt/Sarah Green/Bill Pohlad/Dede Gardner/Grant Hill; Fox Searchlight Pictures; 2011)

If you find the storyline trite or tedious, you still might be engaged by its sheer beauty and come away admiring it for its audacity to be so confounding and open to scrutiny.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

An ambitious and enigmatic experimental personal film reflecting on a lost childhood, while asking questions about mankind’s purpose and relationship to God. It’s the fifth film in four decades from cinema’s brilliant philosophical 67-year-old maverick filmmaker Terrence Malick (“Badlands”/”Days of Heaven”/”The Thin Red Line”/”The New World”), arguably America’s greatest living director (at least I think so). It won this year’s Palme d’Or at Cannes despite the booing from many of the yahoos in the festival audience. Its gripping abstract and at times surreal meditation on Job (it opens with a quote from The Book of Job) gives the pic both a religious and spiritual arc (It’s perhaps the most relevant Christian film of recent times). It manages to question both the meaning of life and the existence of faith, while it also ponders such things as our universal place in the world, the effect on us of both nature and grace, and how we either lose our way in the world or find our bearings when we trust following our inner light. The big questions asked come with such images flashed onscreen as the Big Bang, dinosaurs, a field of sunflowers, a deadly meteor shower, awe-striking modern city skyscrapers and many other images (which makes this a film you might want to see a few times before fully digesting it).

It’s autobiographical and basically set in Waco, Tex., in the 1950s of Eisenhower’s presidency, when the nuclear O’Brien family was filled with hope that they would lead a good family value life and live out the American Dream of prosperity (of note, Malick was born in Illinois but grew up in Waco before moving to Austin). It follows in fragments the white Christian middle-class family, who dwell in a peaceful suburban small town setting and live in a comfortable modest private house with a neat lawn. The family patriarch is the failed musician, factory plant businessman, overbearing, autocratic and uptight scolding dad (Brad Pitt). His dutiful, passive, and caring homemaker wife (Jessica Chastain), dad’s opposite in personality, is always there for him and their three children. It mostly follows the life journey of their eldest son Jack (Hunter McCracken as an adolescent, Sean Penn as an adult). The innocent Jack loses his innocence playing cruel games with his peers, upon the upsetting death of his younger brother (we are not told which brother or how he died, but in real-life Malick’s younger twentysomething brother, an aspiring classical guitarist, committed suicide), the drowning of a neighbor’s child, breaking into a home and stealing a woman’s dress and when Jack is lectured to by his disgruntled rigid father and feels the pain of someone oppressed and not wanted. As a successful middle-aged architect in a modern big city, Jack looks like a duck out of water who can’t figure out how he survived his tormented childhood and is still conflicted over his resentment for his father–blaming him for bringing out his dark side and making him act so cruel to others, especially his younger brother.

What it all means, is open to interpretation. To me it seemed to be almost confessional as a simplistic but sincere commentary on how love gets shut out of one’s life at an early age and its true meaning becomes harder to understand the more it remains absent from one’s life. To find a genuine heart-felt love seems to be what Malick is saying is a timeless quest of the most importance, a quest that haunted the biblical Job that led to his questioning of God. It’s a problem that plagues modern man, who might foolishly think he’s so evolved because he’s a God-fearing family man, is highly respected in the community and is a good citizen without looking further inside himself.

Malick aims high and just throws out there the kitchen sink and doesn’t ask you to buy into anything, but to just observe and take away from it whatever matters to you–ala Kubrick’s masterpiece 2001. If you find the storyline trite or tedious, you still might be engaged by its sheer beauty and come away admiring it for its audacity to be so confounding and open to scrutiny.

It’s grandly scored by Alexandre Desplat with symphonic snippets from Bach, Brahms and Mah­ler. Emmanuel Lubezki’s gorgeous photography makes Malick’s signature imagerystick with you long after seeing the film.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”