September 24, 2011

Fade to black: ‘The Tree of Life’

"Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation ... while the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?"

– Job 38:7

I have never been compelled to scratch notes on the back of a receipt in a dark movie theater, and I have never shushed my husband on the way home to make sure his opinions of a film didn’t contaminate my own before I had a chance to write about it. I did both tonight upon viewing Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life.”

Watching the trailer will give you some indication of the exquisitely beautiful and mysterious cinematography of the film, which has so far taken honors at both Cannes and San Sebastián, and is generating Oscar buzz. Malick (“Badlands,” “Days of Heaven,” “The Thin Red Line”) literally spent decades working on “Tree,” which missed release dates in 2009 and 2010 due to a variety of complications.

Although it features Hollywood superstars Brad Pitt and Sean Penn, it’s safe to say that this film will never be particularly “popular” (though it may well develop a cult following). It’s the kind of film a viewer will either love or hate; in fact, audiences nationwide have both applauded it and booed it.

That’s because onscreen ambiguity tends to foster either love or contempt. Maybe because when I was 4 years old, my mother brought me to “2001: A Space Odyssey” repeatedly in an attempt to “understand” it, I deeply appreciated “The Tree of Life” – a film that owes a great deal to Stanley Kubrick’s ethereal masterpiece.

What is “The Tree of Life” about? If I had to choose a single word, I would say “paradox.” In the Biblical Book of Genesis, Adam and Eve are placed in the Garden of Eden with everything they would ever desire, and with two trees: the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.

While eating from the Tree of Life would offer them immortality, Adam and Eve paradoxically choose instead to eat from the other tree, from which they’ve been forbidden. Thus our spiritual ancestors brought death and suffering to the world – but also childbirth, work, and pretty much everything that makes us human: another paradox.

These kinds of almost nonsensical polar opposites underlie both the film’s plot and its stunning visual imagery. Ostensibly, the story is simple: Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien (Pitt and Jessica Chastain) receive the news that one of their three sons has died suddenly, at age 19. They grieve. Years later, Jack (Penn) – another of their sons, now a successful architect, continues to recall his beloved brother and reflects upon their childhood in small-town Texas.

That’s really it. And yet, there is so much more. Everything in “The Tree of Life” is both mundane and deeply significant. “Tree” is about both birth and death … adoration and hatred … the sacred and the profane … tenderness and sadism … the micro and the macro.

This is a film to be savored on the big screen, as the camera captures – with almost unbearable intimacy – scenes of the O’Brien family’s daily life. The three young brothers (Hunter McCracken, Laramie Eppler and R.L. Tye) behave so authentically, it’s hard to believe a camera is present. And the lens is so close you can almost smell the dirt and perspiration on their skin.

At first, the O’Briens seem like the idyllic 1950s family, but like everything in “Tree,” the reality is not so clear. As the plot continues, the suggestion of something ugly under the surface begins to develop.

But it’s like a Rorschach inkblot test. I don’t think the film contains a take more than three or four seconds long, and each glimpse is more symbolic than literal. What’s really going on here? Is Father simply a strict perfectionist? Or is he abusing his boys? And if he is abusing them, what is the nature of the abuse? Emotional…? Physical…? Sexual…?

The answer to the question might depend upon the childhood memories of the viewer.

But Malek is not content to let you remain with the O’Brien family, nor in the ‘50s, nor in Texas. Instead, he takes you deep into the atom, and then to outer space. He shows you the wonders of nature and the power of the city. He shows you the origins of life on Earth, and then fast-forwards to show you our planet’s eventual fate.

And after dozens of fade-to-blacks in the film, it fades to black a final time – leaving you with more questions than answers.

Very much like life.

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