Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Tree of Life

I rented this movie to watch on my latest cross country plane trip, mainly because it received the 2011 Palme d'Or at Cannes. I hadn't read any reviews, was in a rush to get to the airport, so I threw it on my iPhone and called a cab. In retrospect, I probably should have taken 5 minutes to read a synopsis of why it won.

The cinematography is breathtaking (even on a 3.5" screen). As the story goes, director Terrence Malick doesn't like the look of CGI so he recruited special effects people Douglas Trumbull (2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner) and Dan Glass (Batman Begins, The Matrix Reloaded) to create a variety of stunning effect sequences for this film using chemicals, paint, fluorescent dyes, smoke, liquids, CO2, flares, spin dishes, fluid dynamics, lighting and high speed photography. The musical score is equally moving, featuring everything from classic guitar to choral groups to enormous pipe organ.

This is one of those stories that begins at the end, but quickly rewinds to the beginning. The movie opens with the arrival of a letter and a mother in tears. One of her sons is dead. The scene then switches to an airport tarmac where a troubled looking man holding a telephone receiver is trying to hear the voice on the other end. The news he receives isn't good. However, when I say "rewind" to the beginning, I mean to the beginning of time.

During the first quarter of the film, we bear witness to the birth of the universe, take a tour of our solar system, and watch the volcanic cooling of planet earth. I felt as if I was sitting in a planetarium and the voice of Carl Sagan might, at any moment, comment on the "billions and billions" of stars above us. When single celled organisms and jellyfish came on screen, I began wondering if the monkeys and monolith weren't far behind. Fortunately, we skip the whole evolution of man, which is probably a good choice given that god's existence is already in question and Darwin's buddies might be hard to explain. We are treated to hammerhead sharks, dinosaurs kicking one another, and what appears to be a worldwide tsunami after the impact of a rather large meteor. Oh, and don't let me forget the Loch Ness Monster waddling out of the sea.

After about 30-40 minutes, the people story begins. The setting is 1950's Texas and Mr. and Mr.s O'Brien (played by Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain) are raising a family of three boys. None of the film's dialog seems for the benefit of the audience. What we glean about these people comes from the short snippets of their daily lives that we're allowed to observe. The audience is occasionally privy to the characters' thoughts, giving us more insight into mother, father and eldest son's inner philosophies. The Tree of Life is more like a collection of memories and feelings than a conversation.

The father believes that you can't be all-good and succeed in this world. Bad things happen to good people, life is not fair or just. Which brings up the question: "Where is god? Why does he let bad things happen? Why doesn't he care?" The father teaches the boys to fight at a young age, and rules his household with an iron fist. Mr. O'Brien may have invented the phrase "children should be seen and not heard". Mom is a bit more forgiving, telling her children to love everyone. Without love, your life will pass you by in the blink of an eye. And the kids, they're probably just confused as hell.

But, I have some lingering questions:
  • What's up with that wavering light in the darkness that keeps popping up between scenes?
  • Why does Jack (the eldest son) raid his mom's lingerie drawer, then float one of her slips down the river?
  • Why was Sean Penn cast for a tiny role as the grown-up version of Jack?
  • Why didn't I think to watch this movie on the laptop underneath my seat rather than my iPhone (D'oh!)
See this film on a big screen with a good sound system if at all possible.

- Ron Shaker

Venue: iPhone
Country: USA
Language: English
Genre: Drama
Rating: 4/5

Semi-official Site
IMDB

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