The Tree of Life: Cannes Review

The Tree of Life -- Film Still -- Family
Merie Wallace/Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation
A unique film that will split opinions every which way, which Fox Searchlight can only hope will oblige people to see it for themselves.

Brad Pitt gives one of his finest performances in Terrence Malick's drama about the beginnings of life on Earth and the travails of a 1950s Texas family, writes Todd McCarthy.

CANNES -- Brandishing an ambition it’s likely no film, including this one, could entirely fulfill, The Tree of Life is nonetheless a singular work, an impressionistic metaphysical inquiry into mankind’s place in the grand scheme of things that releases waves of insights amid its narrative imprecisions. This fifth feature in Terrence Malick’s eccentric four-decade career is a beauteous creation that ponders the imponderables, asks the questions that religious and thoughtful people have posed for millennia and provokes expansive philosophical musings along with intense personal introspection.

As such, it is hardly a movie for the masses and will polarize even buffs, some of whom might fail to grasp the connection between the depiction of the beginnings of life on Earth and the travails of a 1950s Texas family. But there are great, heady things here, both obvious and evanescent, more than enough to qualify this as an exceptional and major film. Critical passions, pro and con, along with Brad Pitt in one of his finest performances will stir specialized audiences to attention, but Fox Searchlight will have its work cut out for it in luring a wider public.

Shot three years ago and molded and tinkered with ever since by Malick and no fewer than five editors, Life is shaped in an unconventional way, not as a narrative with normal character arcs and dramatic tension but more like a symphony with several movements -- each expressive of its own natural phenomena and moods. Arguably, music plays a much more important role here than do words (there is some voice-over but scarcely any dialogue at all for nearly an hour) whereas the soaring, sometimes grandiose soundtrack -- comprising 35 mostly classical excerpts drawn from Bach, Brahms, Berlioz, Mahler, Holst, Respighi, Gorecki and others in addition to the contributions of Alexandre Desplat -- dominates in the way it often did in Stanley Kubrick’s work.

Indeed, this comparison is inevitable, as Life is destined to be endlessly likened to 2001: A Space Odyssey because to the spacy imagery of undefinable celestial lights and formations as well as because of its presentation of key hypothetical moments in the evolution of life on this planet. There are also equivalent long stretches of silence and semi-boredom designed, perhaps, to provide some time to muse about matters rarely raised in conventional narrative films.

That Malick intends to think large is indicated by an opening quotation from the Book of Job, in which God intimidates the humble man by demanding, “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the Earth? Tell me, if you have understanding.” Job is not cited again but is more or less paraphrased when, in moments of great personal distress, a small-town mother cries out, “Lord, why? Where are you?” and “What are we to you?”

Life doesn’t answer these questions but fashions a relationship between its big-picture perspective and its intimate story that crucially serves the film’s philosophical purposes. Much of the early going is devoted to spectacular footage of massive natural phenomena, both in space and on Earth: gaseous masses, light and matter in motion, volcanic explosions, fire and water, the creation and growth of cells and organisms, eventually the evolution of jellyfish and even dinosaurs, represented briefly by stunningly realistic creatures, one of which oddly appears to express compassion for another.

Juxtaposed with this are the lamentations of a mother (Jessica Chastain) for a son who has just died in unexplained circumstances and for a time it seems that placing the everyday doings of the O’Brien family of a quiet Texas town in the shadow of the seismic convulsions pertaining to the planet’s creation represents an inordinately elaborate way of expressing what Bogart said in Casablanca, that “the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.”

But while that might be true, it is also the case that those very problems -- and everything else that people experience -- are all that matter at the time one is experiencing them and are therefore of surpassing importance. Whatever else can -- and will -- be said about it, Life gets the balance of its extraordinary dual perspective between the cosmic and the momentary remarkably right, which holds it together even during its occasional uncertain stretches.

Least effective is the contemporary framing material centered on the oldest O’Brien kid, Jack, portrayed as a middle-aged man by Sean Penn. A successful architect, Jack looks troubled and preoccupied as he moves through a world defined by giant Houston office towers and atriums shot so as to resemble secular cathedrals. While the connection to Jack’s childhood years is clear, the dramatic contributions of these largely wordless scenes are weak, even at the end, when a sense of reconciliation and closure is sought by the sight of flowers and disparate souls gathering on a beach in a way that uncomfortably resembles hippie-dippy reveries of the late 1960s.

But the climactic shortfall only marginally saps the impact of the central story of family life. Occupying a pleasant but not lavish home on a wide dirt street in a town that matches one’s idealized vision of a perfect 1950s community (it’s actually Smithville, population 3,900, just southeast of Austin and previously seen in Hope Floats), the family is dominated by a military veteran father (Pitt) who lays down the law to his three boys seemingly more by rote than because of any necessity. He’s compulsively physical with them, playfully, affectionately and violently, and yet rigidly holds something back.

Within Malick’s scheme of things, Dad represents nature, while Mom (Chastain) stands for grace. Great pals among themselves, Jack (Hunter McCracken), R.L. (Pitt look-alike Laramie Eppler) and Steve (Tye Sheridan) range all over town and would seem to enjoy near-ideal circumstances in which to indulge their youth.

But working in a manner diametrically opposed to that of theater dramatists inclined to spell everything out, Malick opens cracks and wounds by inflection, indirection and implication. Using fleet camerawork and jump-cutting that combine to intoxicating effect, the picture builds to unanticipated levels of disappointment and tragedy, much of it expressed with a minimum of dialogue in the final stages of Pitt’s terrific performance.

Embodying the American ideal with his clean-cut good looks, open face, look-you-in-the-eyes directness and strong build, Pitt’s Mr. O’Brien embodies the optimism and can-do attitude one associates with the postwar period. But this man had other, unfulfilled dreams -- he became “sidetracked,” as he says -- and as his pubescent oldest son begins to display a troublesome rebelliousness, fractures begins to show in his own character as well, heartbreakingly so.

Voice-over snippets suggestive of states of mind register more importantly than dialogue, and both are trumped by the diverse musical elements and the rumblings and murmurs of nature, which have all been blended in a masterful sound mix. Emmanuel Lubezki outdoes himself with cinematography of almost unimaginable crispness and luminosity. As in The New World, the camera is constantly on the move, forever reframing in search of the moment, which defines the film’s impressionistic manner.

Production designer Jack Fisk and costume designer Jacqueline West make indispensable contributions to creating the film’s world. That not a single image here seems fake or artificial can only be the ultimate praise for the work of senior visual effects supervisor Dan Glass and his team, while the presence of Douglas Trumbull as visual effects consultant further cements the film’s connection to 2001.

Venue: Cannes Film Festival, Competition
Release: May 27 (Fox Searchlight)
Production: River Road Entertainment
Cast: Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, Jessica Chastain, Fiona Shaw, Irene Bedard, Jessica Fuselier, Hunter McCracken, Laramie Eppler, Tye Sheridan
Director-screenwriter: Terrence Malick
Producers: Sarah Green, Bill Pohlad, Brad Pitt, Dede Gardner, Grant Hill
Executive producer: Donald Rosenfeld
Director of photography: Emmanuel Lubezki
Production design: Jack Fisk
Costume designer: Jacqueline West
Editors: Hank Corwin, Jay Rabinowitz, Daniel Rezende, Billy Weber, Mark Yoshikawa
Music: Alexandre Desplat
PG-13 rating, 138 minutes