I’ve been writing too often about politicians — dull creatures, in most cases, with bad ideas and base motives. So here’s a belated review of my favorite movie of 2011, director/writer Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. I only saw six new movies last year, three of them on DVD, so it was an easy choice.
Malick starts with a quotation from the Book of Job and tells his story in carefully wrought images, with occasional bits of voice-over and dialogue. We meet an attractive couple, played by Jessica Chastain and Brad Pitt, and their three children, living in an idyllic looking American town in the 1950s. We see them at home, happy together. There is an apparent jump in time. A letter is delivered — one of the kids is dead. Mom and Dad are shown grappling with their grief.
Cut to Sean Penn looking forlorn, roaming under a vaulted glass-and-steel ceiling, through the halls of a glacial looking skyscraper. It becomes clear we’ve been flash-forwarded to the present, that Penn is one of the sons, working as an architect. He’s having a middle-age crisis and is thinking of his parents and long-dead brother. In voice-over, he says things like “How did I lose you?” He’s addressing his brother, his mother, or maybe his idea of God.
And then… WTF? Malick cuts to the history of the world — the Big Bang, celestial vistas, erupting volcanoes, roiling seas, primordial ooze, primitive sea creatures, even a kindly dinosaur. What was the point of all this commotion, he seems to ask, if everything ends in death?
In case you haven’t guessed, this movie is not for Zach Galifianakis fans. The only other director who would have attempted anything so grand — or grandiose, if you prefer — is Stanley Kubrick. The difference is that Kubrick was totally cerebral, indifferent to his characters, whereas Malick is trying to make sense of life and death from a humanist perspective.
After the Genesis interlude, the story — I use the term loosely — resumes in the 1950s. This time the family’s little world is not so idyllic, although it’s just as sunlit and beautiful. We see father-mother, father-son and brother-brother conflicts. The angry father vents feelings of failure. The stately music swells. Everything happens as if in a flood of memories.
I won’t try to tell you how the movie ends, and I’ve only touched on a few of its themes. You might find it a nostalgic-seeming bore, or a purposeful and daring attempt to convince us that love is transcendent, stronger than death. I’m in the latter camp. Malick’s movie makes life feel like a dream, but the dream seems more real than most conventional realistic dramas or, God help us, reality TV.
Footnote: I don’t know how well The Tree of Life went over in the theaters. Some people I know would run for the exits after the first ten minutes. Others would be stunned, if only by its visual beauty. I watched it at home by myself and felt overwhelmed. See it with someone close to you if you can, someone who enjoys arguing.