New on DVD: The Tree of Life (2011)

You’d have to go back to 2001: A Space Odyssey to find a motion picture as inspiring and divisive as Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life.

Both films exploit Hollywood’s awesome resources (Brad Pitt! Space ships! Computer-generated dinosaurs!) to capture one man’s intensely personal vision, all the while blythly ignoring the needs of your average movie watcher.

Even today one can watch Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 space opera with varying degrees of this-is-brilliant and gimme-a-break. The Tree of Life is just as contradictory.

The latest from Malick (only five feature films in a career of more than 40 years) is the story of one family, but in fact it attempts to distill the very experience of being human.

More than that, even, it’s a God’s-eye portrait of our planet, of its birth in the fires of creation and the life with which it teems.

If that sounds like a recipe for pretentiousness...well, it is. This is not a typical movie. It’s not for artistic or intellectual wimps.

Here Malick, who in recent years (The Thin Red Line, The New World) has drifted away from traditional narratives in favor of impressionistic tapestries woven from sight and sound, attempts to capture an entire life.

He does so not with a conventional plot but through the accumulation of countless small details. Tree does not seem to have been written; rather it feels like a distillation of moments — few of them overtly dramatic – collected during years of careful observation.

(It may help to know that Malick doesn’t work from a completed script. He has his actors improvise in front of the camera and then looks for his “story” in the editing room ... which explains why Tree of Life underwent almost three years of post production.)

Tree of Life, which runs for a bun-numbing 2 1/2 hours, is about a Texas clan in the 1950s. It’s about enjoying the innocent boyhood of that era.

It’s also about deep parental love and lacerating family dysfunction.

And it’s about looking back on one’s childhood and trying to take stock of the person you’ve become.

Except that this description makes the film sound much more structured than it really is.

There’s very little dialogue and nothing like traditional exposition. It as if we’re drifting through one man’s memories.

That man is Jack, played as an adult by Sean Penn, who looks like he is perpetually in need of a shot of Maalox. Jack is an architect working in a high-rise office building.

But the grown-up Jack is rarely on screen. Most of the film unfolds a half-century earlier during the childhoods of the young Jack (an excellent Hunter McCracken) and his two brothers.

Their lives are in many ways idyllic. Swimming. Playing in the woods. Roughhousing.

Their freckled, red-haired mother (Jessica Chastain) is kind, nurturing and loving.

Their father (Brad Pitt), on the other hand, comes at parenthood from the perspective of a Marine D.I. preparing raw recruits for combat. It’s not that he doesn’t deeply love his boys ... but it’s a form of tough love that borders on abuse. A slamming screen door can bring down a world of woe on a thoughtless youngster.

To the extent that Tree has any dramatic momentum, it’s in the contrast between these two characters and the strain their different outlooks have on the marriage and on their sons.

Malick approaches all this tangentially. One scene blends into another. Time hangs suspended. The film often cuts away to vignettes from nature: raging cataracts, sunsets, insects, leaves gently flapping in the breeze.

The film is such an exercise in obliqueness that we never learn most of the characters’ names.

The limited dialogue is matter of fact and terse. But Tree of Life is forever employing whispered voiceover narration to reveal what the characters are thinking. Often they’re praying for understanding, wisdom, and patience.

All this would be enough challenge for most moviegoers, but a half hour into the film Malick delivers a jaw-dropping 20-minute sequence that stands alone in the history of cinema.

Basically he gives us a creation story, moving back and forth between the molecular and the cosmic. We see solar systems being formed, lava erupting, cells dividing, species evolving. There’s a brief but utterly convincing tableau set in the Jurassic (yep, dinosaurs).

There’s no narration here (as with the “stargate” sequence in 2001, we’re expected to come to our own conclusions). But the use of classical music — especially chorale works and Smetana’s haunting “The Moldau” — gives Tree of Life the feel of a church service.

Like a modern-day William Blake in awe of the world, Malick is trying desperately and poetically to express that glory.

Hollywood rarely tolerates personal movies. Doesn’t trust them. Doesn’t like them.

And yet here we have one man’s take on not just his own life but that of our shared planet, using millions of dollars in state-of-the-art technology and one of our biggest movie stars.

Tree of Life ends with an achingly beautiful emotional coda that gathers all the characters — including both Jack’s grownup and childhood selves — on a beach at sundown, surrounded by people in the dress of various cultures.

It’s a vision of the brotherhood of man united in an eternal moment, and while we may be tempted to let go with a cynical snort, we don’t. Somewhere deep inside us Malick has flipped a switch.

He may have irritated us with his languid pacing, his refusal to speak clearly and concisely, his unwillingness to connect the dots for us.

But in Tree of Life’s final moments he nails the essence of being human so beautifully that resistance is futile. We’re all inhabitants of his (His?) world.

About the Author

Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.

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