Eccentric director’s ‘Tree of Life’ tackles big ideas

  • By Robert Horton Herald Movie Critic
  • Friday, June 17, 2011 12:01am
  • Life

In four decades of working in films, Terrence Malick has directed five features. Twenty years of silence separated his gorgeous 1978 film, “Days of Heaven,” and his ethereal combat picture, “The Thin Red Line.”

The scarcity of Malick’s output should not be interpreted as a lack of ambition. A

s he proves with “The Tree of Life,” Malick has big things on his mind. Huge, in fact: like what it all means, where we all come from, the terrible division that sets human beings on the path of nature or the path of grace.

Human beings, and also dinosaurs. More about that later.

“The Tree of Life,” which won the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival a month ago, is a big-stakes magnum opus. It doesn’t tell a “story,” but much of it looks at a family in Waco, Texas, in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The father (Brad Pitt, never better) is a disciplinarian, the mother (Jessica Chastain), an angelic nurturer.

They have three sons; the oldest, Jack (Hunter McCracken) is clearly the central character, although a sensitive younger brother (Laramie Eppler) is also important. He is presumably the brother whose death (a decade or so after this section) is mentioned in one of the film’s first scenes.

There’s another brother, too, played by Tye Sheridan. I’m not sure why he doesn’t seem to matter to the movie very much, but there are quite a few vague elements in play here.

Along with these Texas scenes, the film includes adult Jack, played by Sean Penn, who wanders through glass-and-metal skyscrapers. The movie might be his memories, although it is narrated by different people.

And then there’s a long sequence in which Malick approximates the Big Bang, and the creation of the world, with a variety of nature shots and special effects and one sequence involving a dinosaur’s act of mercy upon another dinosaur.

Recall that Malick graduated from college (he was a serious student of philosophy) in 1965, and began dabbling in film shortly thereafter.

“The Tree of Life” looks like the kind of picture a bright young film enthusiast, full of ideas and flower-power sentiments, might have made as his graduate project in, say, 1970. (If he had stars and a big budget). It’s a head-trip movie built upon a strongly felt family portrait.

That portrait is vivid: cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and production designer Jack Fisk (if they don’t win Oscars, the fix is in) help Malick evoke a heart-rending Texas childhood: Every shot down a row of summer lawns seems to open up a precise remembrance of youth (Malick grew up in Waco; the film was shot in the Texas town of Smithville).

Malick mashes all that together with a Greatest Classical Hits soundtrack, then returns to the Sean Penn character for a regrettable final sequence. For me, that’s when the grand ambitions truly crashed to earth.

“The Tree of Life” is well worth seeing, especially on a huge screen, and many critics have been breathless in their praise. It’s lovely. It’s also foolish, and unfortunately I think the foolish part carries the day.

“The Tree of Life” (3 stars)

Terrence Malick’s magnum opus is partly about a Texas family in the early 1950s, but also about the Big Bang and the creation of the world, heady stuff for a philosophical director, but overall the kind of enterprise that might have been a graduate project for a flower-power filmmaker of the late ’60s. The Texas scenes are beautiful, and Brad Pitt gives his best film work as a disciplinarian dad, but the head-trip aspects finally seem sort of foolish.

Rated: PG-13 for subject matter.

Showing: Egyptian.

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