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Most Movies Have Acts. ‘The Tree of Live’ Has Overtures, Movements, Symphonies

Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life plays more like a memory or a dream than so many movies that try to evoke just one of those states, nevermind both. It unfolds with incredible beauty over the course of 140 minutes, yet also seems to be taking place all at once — a life in an instant. It begins with parents reeling from the death of their teenage son and ends, well, somewhere else. The afterlife, or the end of the world, or sometime before then.

Most movies have acts. This one has overtures, movements, symphonies. After opening with the grieving parents, Malick shows us a mopey Sean Penn, his trademark shots of rustling blades of grass, moving snapshots of a family, to which the movie keeps returning: following a particularly impressionistic first 50 minutes or so, the story settles into mostly chronicling a childhood, beautiful and sad and joyous all at once. It seems to be unfolding from the memory of Jack O’Brien, the oldest of three children. As an adult, he’s played by Sean Penn, but Penn has little screentime and even fewer lines compared to natural young Hunter McCracken, who plays Jack as a child.

His parents are known only as Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt) and Mrs. O’Brien (Jessica Chastain), and locked, according to the movie’s narration, in a struggle between nature, embodied by the hard, willful Mr. O’Brien, and grace, brought to life by his kind, empathetic wife. The film finds Pitt and Chastain at markedly different points in their career: he’s moving gracefully into middle age and taking more risks as he goes, while she went from obscurity to having six movies released in 2011.

They’re both wonderful; if this isn’t Pitt’s best performance so far, it’s up there, tough and wounded. Both parents show an aching disappointment; he at his inability to rise above middling, workaday success (a family and a house, but not the riches to support them), and hers at his forceful, sometimes domineering treatment of the children.

We see these characters as children might. Malick and his gifted cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki, shoot many scenes at low angles, eye-level with the adults or sometimes lower, with a child’s eye view, giving entire scenes a vivid sense of recollection. Though the imagery – fire extinguishers creating a white fog on Jack’s idyllic street, or a marauding gang of pre-teens throwing rocks through old windows – is gorgeous and sometimes expansive, Malick and Lubezki don’t shoot in the 2.35:1 aspect ratio as Malick did for The Thin Red Line and The New World. Instead, shooting at 1.85:1, the images feel more intimate.

Reinforcing that intimacy, most of the family story is confined to a neighborhood in suburban Texas. When it leaves the neighborhood, though, the story leaps through time and into dreams, primarily for a 15-minute sequence in the first hour that glimpses through the history of time: planets forming in space; life on Earth taking shape; and, yes, in one scene, dinosaurs. These digressions recall 2001, of course (Malick even recruited that film’s effects guru, Douglas Trumbull, to revive some practical techniques for this one), and might be cited as the height of Malick’s fussy obfuscations, a distraction from the simplicity of his memory-story.

But these trips across time and space place Jack’s story in context, no matter how ridiculously large and elaborate that context is: As a child and as an adult, Jack seeks his place in the universe, and attempts to understand the nature of that universe. Malick’s visualization of the world’s life cycle makes grand leaps of ambition, and usually lands gracefully. If there’s anything he could do to cut down on the self-conscious ponderousness, it’s perhaps scale back his beloved voiceover, which, while lovelier and less clumsy than so much movie narration, occasionally veers into self-serious poetry – unnecessary, really, because the movie has so much visual poetry.

Much is made of the time Malick spends in the editing room, cutting and recutting to hone that particular poetry. His editing sojourns are formidable, but the wild ambition of Tree of Life didn’t come from that process alone; before his marathon sessions, Malick still has to go out and shoot dream sequences with underwater houses, Sean Penn storylines that don’t wind up in the final cut, and nature footage from the past two or three decades, among others. The final version (at least for now; unlike The New World, which went through three publicly released iterations, no further “director’s cut” has been announced) gives the impression of a filmmaker constantly searching.

The Blu-Ray version of Tree of Life diminishes the movie, in the sense that, like 2001, the movie benefits even more than most from unfolding on a giant screen with big speakers in enveloping darkness, away from the comfort of your couch. But it looks great in high-definition, if that’s what you’re into. (Malick or his people sense that home theater is sub-optimal for the movie, which on disc is preceded by the suggestion that you “play it loud”, presumably to better emphasize its sensory immersiveness.)

The disc also comes with a 30-minute feature, “Exploring The Tree of Life“, which covers the details of the production and places it in Malick’s filmography. The reclusive director, of course, doesn’t participate (the lack of a commentary track feels just about perfect); pinch-hitting instead are auteur superstars David Fincher and Christopher Nolan, talking about their early experiences with Badlands and Days of Heaven and their admiration for Malick’s style and techniques.

There are first-hand perspectives from those who worked on the movie, too, like production designer Jack Fisk and composer Alexandre Desplat. One of Malick’s producers mentions the script, which was apparently less a traditional screenplay than a collage of words, photographs, paintings, and references to music. Trumbull, the effects guru, characterizes the movie as a “simple human story with spectacular framework,” as good a description as any. Everyone, from collaborators to admirers, is left speculating about how the movie might represent Malick’s memories of growing up in Texas.

It’s strange, of course, for a making-of feature to proceed more or less as if the filmmaker is dead and gone, unable to answer questions. But it’s also strangely appropriate. Malick will make other movies; in fact, he’s already shot one and is prepping another, which means his next few may appear faster than ever. But Tree of Life feels like the one he’s been trying to make for a long time.

RATING 8 / 10