Movies: "The Tree of Life" | Arts & Culture

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Movies: "The Tree of Life"
Movies:  "The Tree of Life"


There are dinosaurs in this movie, and a series of breathtaking space visuals, but this is about as far from a summer sci-fi blockbuster as you can get.


Written and directed by the reclusive Terrence Malick (he wouldn’t even appear to accept his best picture award at the Cannes Film Festival), “The Tree of Life” is a deeply serious exploration of one Texas family whose personal tragedy evokes all humanity’s abiding questions about God’s will.  


At the center of the movie is Jack, the oldest of the family’s three sons.  We first see him as an adult, played by Sean Penn, an architect working amidst the steel and glass of a major city.  His searching memories take him back to 1950s Waco, where he grew up with his two brothers and parents Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien (Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain).  The younger Jack is played by a talented newcomer, Hunter McCracken, and we follow his life from birth to rebellious adolescence in what can only be described as the best-shot home movies ever made.


The movie opens in the 1960’s when Mrs. O’Brien receives a telegram informing her that her youngest and gentlest son Steve (Tye Sheridan, who bears a striking resemblance to Mr. Pitt) has been killed in Vietnam.  As with so much of the movie, this heart-rending moment is presented in virtual silence.  Even when she phones her husband to break the news, we can’t hear his voice either, as it is drowned out by a taxiing airplane.


In fact, there is very little dialogue in the entire movie.  Most of the actor’s voices are interior monologues, delivered quietly against the background of natural sounds:  traffic, bird songs, ocean waves, the wind.  We do spend a lot of time with the O’Brien family, witnessing the sometimes painful interactions among them.  Mr. O’Brien is a failed concert pianist, who has settled for a job at a big factory and takes out his frustrations on his three boys.  Mrs. O’Brien is a loving mother, quick to shelter her brood from her sometimes violently angry husband.  Every detail of their modest suburban home is period perfect, right down to the pots and pans.


But as the movie shuttles back to the present and grown-up Jack’s anguished question for God, “Where were you?”, we suddenly see the creation of the universe (using some mind-blowing Hubble Space Telescope imagery), then the dawning of life on Earth, including those aforementioned dinosaurs.  You may be reminded of the unforgettable opening scenes from Stanley Kubrick’s “2001, A Space Odyssey.”


“The Tree of Life” was filmed by Mexican-born Emmanuel Lubezki, whose brilliant camera work distinguished such disparate earlier movies as “Sleepy Hollow,” “Children of Men” and Malick’s most recent film, “The New World.”  In this new one, he drops the camera down to kid level, running behind or ahead of the rambunctious O’Brien boys as they scamper around Waco.  


It all ends with a vision of the afterlife as a gathering of souls, old and young, on a wide beach, with the O’Briens finally reunited.  

You may agree or disagree with the serious religious tone of Mr. Malick’s family drama, but I promise that you will be blown away by its beautiful imagery and powerful classical music (scored by Alexandre Desplat, who also provided the music for the new Harry Potter movies as well as “The King’s Speech”).  I guarantee you there will be a number of Oscar nominations for this movie.


“The Tree of Life” is rated PG-13 for its sometimes disturbing thematic content.  I give it a B-Plus.

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