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 Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life

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Donald McKinney
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PostSubject: Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life   Thu Sep 15, 2011 12:34 am

Terrence Malick is the most mysterious, unprolific director working today, getting his career off to a great start with Badlands (1973) and Days of Heaven (1978), but before his 20 year sabbatical, which would only be broken when he returned to the screen with The Thin Red Line (1998), he had been working on a mysterious little project called Q. Something he'd pitched as part of a deal he was offered by Paramount Pictures after Days of Heaven came out. Sadly, the deal amounted to nothing, but Malick still worked on this mysterious project, which was originally set in the Middle East during WW1, however it had dinosaurs in it... The script ended up being the size of a phone book, and still Malick worked on it. Eventually dumping the WW1 bit and he nearly focused on a prehistoric film. Eventually, he abandoned it altogether and moved to France. But, after Malick returned with The Thin Red Line and the excellent The New World (2005), he had originally been attached to do Che (2008), which was eventually done by Steven Soderbergh. But, he had a good relationship with the producers, and with them, Malick revived Q, now called The Tree of Life. The producers thought he was mad, but stuck with him. It took over 5 years in the making, 3 of which in post-production. The result is like nothing ever seen in cinemas ever, it's pretentious, but in a good way, it's juxtaposed like mad, but it still works, it's still got dinosaurs in it, and The Tree of Life is maybe the most visually jaw-dropping film this decade. There won't be another one like this for a long time...

The film is focused on two main strands. That of the O'Brien family sometime in the 1950's and 1960's in Waco, Texas, whose mother (Jessica Chastain) receives a telegram saying that her son has died, (it's never stated which one has), and the news soon reaches the father (Brad Pitt), who is a loving father, but strict and tough. It also flashes forwards to the present day, where Jack O'Brien (Sean Penn), an architect who is a lost soul working in the modern, faceless world, and he still thinks of his dead brother all the time. As we learn of Jack's childhood, it's interpersed with footage showing the beginning of the universe, how planet Earth was formed, and life coming together on Earth with dinosaurs and such, before it focuses on the family life of the O'Brien's in Waco, (which incidently, is Malick's hometown). It shows how the mother and father as a young couple, and their 3 sons, Jack (Hunter McCracken), R.L. (Laramie Eppler) and Steve (Tye Sheridan), and how they grow up and learn about the world around them, how the death of a friend at a swimming pool makes them aware of death, especially Jack, who shows a rebelious side, which puts him at odds with his father, who has a brutal streak, but his mother, who is a naive free-spirit, is scornful of the way Mr. O'Brien treats his sons.

It's a visually beautiful film, but it'll take more than one viewing to fully understand it all, hell, it'll take more than two or three. Even just to apprieciate the origin of Earth and the heavens, most of which was done the old fashioned way, without CGI. For that, Malick enlisted the great Douglas Trumbull, (2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and Blade Runner (1982)), who had worked on Malick's abandoned Q project back in the late 1970's. But, instead of opting for CGI, Trumbull opted for the same techniques and methods he did for when he did the Beyond The Infinite sequence in 2001 with Stanley Kubrick, using lights, smoke, mirrors, liquids and special photography. It's effects like these which are alot more convincing than any modern CGI could do, and it'll stay with you for a long time after the credits roll. When CGI does appear, (with the dinosaurs), it doesn't look like it's properly rendered in places, even though Malick got in Peter Jackson's trusted effects man Richard Taylor to supervise it. But, this is a minor niggle in the whole scheme of things, even Malick doesn't like CGI. And alot of the effects left over from this is said to be used for another film...

Meanwhile, back on earth, or Texas to be precise. The film is a beautiful visual feast, it's a philosophical meditation on what it's like to be a child, and learning along the way as they grow up. It's beautifully shot by Emmanuel Lubezki, who worked with Malick on The New World, it's a sun-snogged, rich experience. Mostly shot around the magic hour, that's during the first and last hours of sunlight in a day when the sun gives off a rich, golden colour. Malick has used this before in all of his films, and it adds character to his films. It adds to the mood of the film, and it's shot in a very unconventional way too, mainly using weird angled lenses too, giving the film an other worldly feel. Even Malick selects some weird, unorthodox shots that appear throughout the film, from the view of waves from underneath the water to the flickering, flame like motiv of Thomas Wilfred's Opus 161, and there's images of landscapes, both out in the wilds and in the suburbs and cities, which adds to the films surrealistic, experimental and philosophical mood. It's an unconventional way of telling what is a very simple story, the best way to describe the film is 2001: A Space Odyssey, but set in Texas instead of outer space.

For a film tackling the origins of life, the universe, earth and everything else inbetween, it's actually a very small scale film. Where the O'Brien family are the primary focus. Brad Pitt is a scary figure as the patriach of the O'Brien family, you kinda get the impression he had it tough as a child and it's rubbed off on him big time, and he only wants the best for his children. Sean Penn's appearance as the older Jack is brief and fleeting, but he makes a big impression throughout the film, even narrating the origins of life in the film, methinks there's more of Penn lying on the cutting room floor, in fact, Malick wants to do a 6 hour version of this film, so there's more of the older Jack to be seen one day. But the real aces in the film are Jessica Chastain, a relative newcomer to films, with bits on TV aside, as Mrs. O'Brien, the mother of the boys who is loving, caring and gentle and with a childish, carefree side too, which her husband cannot stand. And the kids playing the O'Brien children, non of them had ever done a film, but somehow, Malick manages to get beautful, naturalistic performances out of them all, we won't have seen the last of them hopefully if there's justice. Oh, and Irish actress Fiona Shaw, (Petunia Dursley off the Harry Potter films), appears as the Grandmother, quite inspired, but there's probabily more to come in this fabled 6 hour cut.



Words can't describe a film like The Tree of Life straight away, as it's a very emotionally draining film. It's a film which leaves more questions than answers, which is probabily the right thing to do, as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and this is one hell of a beautiful film, and what a visual feast it is. You can see why this won the Palme D'Or at Cannes this year, despite some rude booing. History makes films, time kills critics, and Malick may very well get the last laugh on this one. When all blockbusters made these days will soon be long forgotten, The Tree of Life will remain for all time. It's got a dreamy vibe about it, love it or hate it, the visuals that appear in this film won't leave your mind for a long time afterwards, whether it be the experimental, psychedelic origins of life or the gentle meditation of childhood in suburbian Texas. Malick has made something you don't get often in cinema, a film with ideas, that asks it's audience to think for themselves and go away and talk. Getting the film made seems to have pacified something deep within Malick too, now that he's got it out of his system, he's just finished filming another film, and he's planning another one after that. Some say this film was semi-autobiographical, (Malick had a brother who died when he was young), but has this been what caused that 20 year gap?? Let's hope we see more films from Malick before he meets the end of time and life itself, as our characters do in the film. In short, Uwe Boll was wrong. Razz
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