Lust for Life
Published on May 26th, 2011 | by Ryan Wells3
A Terrence Malick film—they have their own trademark, like Coca-Cola or Bill Clinton—can be best graded by the sensory experiences achieved by the audience and if the moral is simultaneously understood. In other words, there’s not a lot of interest achieving a delectable back story by good Texas filmmaker. And Malick’s best in his work when he focuses on those emotional pulse points and stays there – no apologies necessary. His most recent work, “The Tree of Life,” which opens tomorrow, carries this ball into the end zone with graceful ease—albeit not without its minor fouls—in what can only be called a celebration of life as we remember it.
“The Tree of Life,” is a little big picture in the sense that the trajectory reaches billions of years but focuses solely on the interrelations of the O’Brien family of Smithville, Texas in the mid-1950s. More specifically time and space bounce off each other in amiable nods from the time of the dinosaurs (and millions of years prior) to the contemporary (rooted there by architect executive Sean Penn, the middle-aged Jack who is the focal whispering narrator, though shares this role with his two parents and his younger self) and back to the O’Brien family nucleus. The film is neither solely Christian, atheistic nor Buddhist but rather takes props from each of these views and blends it with a raison d’être that’s seemingly American if anything.
We learn at the beginning of the film of the death of Jack’s younger brother R.L (Laramie Eppler) who fell in Vietnam; this then works as a mnemonic device to older Jack as this particular day is R.L’s birthday. We’re then swept—and kept there—in the distant and near past for the majority of “The Tree of Life.” The birth of the world is certainly a pleasurable albeit clichéd experience to view (the establishing shots in “The New World” were far simpler, but better played), though Malick pinches off the metaphysics upon the angelic birth of Jack (stony, precocious Hunter McCracken) and the subsequent adolescent years with his parents (politely intense Brad Pitt and the exquisite Jessica Chastain) and brother.
What especially works in “The Tree of Life” is the interpretation of how we capture our memories of childhood and celebrating the pleasure and pain of it as it leaves us (note: this is meant to also be symbolic of our entire lives as we look to what’s beyond the yellow brick road, whatever that may be). For a film that is so often described as a prose poem or merely an abstraction, it tackles the concept of reflection with absolute, exact realism that would make Rossellini blush.
Depending on where you look in cinema history, the psychological shifts in our youth have been accomplished prior to with impressive abilities (“Whistle Down the Wind,” “The Champ,” “Fanny and Alexander,” “Mouchette”). But with Malick’s aesthetic tools we’re able to get an even more realistic imagining of not only what childhood feels like, but also how—at that very moment—we conceptualize our surroundings (e.g. Jack’s the mythical, warm mother floating nymph-like in one scene; in another, she’s memorialized as “Sleeping Beauty”).
Malick’s film is not without its flaws. Take the music. While his selections of soundtracks for his films are usually well-wrought choices, he blew his load, so to speak with “The Tree of Life.” If I calculate correctly there are over thirty-five separate pieces of music used. And yes, I understand we’re viewing a filmed mosaic, so the music can be peppered throughout without needing to be exactly similar to reflect the variance (though the requiem theme is consistently used). However, the marvelous work that Alexandre Desplat has done in recent years (“Birth,” “Lust, Caution,” “The Ghost Writer”) still didn’t grant him carte blanche in his indistinguishable “The Tree of Life” score. Instead we’re given a hyper smattering from the classical box sets that are certainly more ineffective than if we had a consistent Desplat requiem running throughout.
Further, while Malick was able to keep his rhythm and simmering beauty to the end of “The Tree of Life” he loses considerable steam once Penn’s Jack is brought back into focus in the final act. The way he interacts with his fellow spiritual brethren on a nameless beach (sorry for the vagary) is overtly Felliniesque and has been stale since the sixties. The symbolism also is so replete that a hernia could be in fact inflicted on a lesser viewer. It’s just too damn much!
And yet, all complaints aside, we’re given a monumental contribution to contemporary cinema. We’re not dealing with mimicry or pseudo-intellectualism or a cranked out awards season forget-me-not. Rather, “The Tree of Life” is an inspiration of what cinema should be: a capturing of life; and doing so with the kind of bravado as if it’s the last reel of film on earth.