Remember being blown away by Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” in 1968? That’s how I felt viewing Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life.” A religious experience without being preachy, the film is an all-out assault on the senses.
After 40 years in the business, Malick has made only five feature films. Three years after having been shot, “The Tree of Life” has finally landed in theaters — and with an explosive thud. To suggest that the film is deep is a massive understatement. Frankly, I didn’t get it, but I thoroughly enjoyed looking at it.
More a meditation than a story, the film centers on a family living in 1950s Texas. Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien (Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain, both outstanding) are the parents of three boys. Much of the film is seen through the eyes of their son, Jack (Hunter McCracken and Sean Penn), who has repressed anger. Torn between his parents’ diversely different views on child rearing, Jack evolves into a frustrated adult.
Voiceovers, like whispers in the wind (at times, barely audible), give insight into the character’s inner thoughts. It worked so well in Malick’s “Days of Heaven” but seemed overwhelmingly ethereal in “The Tree of Life.”
The director also throws in lots of disturbing and difficult-to-decipher images. A bloodied dog disappears into the brush. An ugly old man exclaims he’ll be back in five years. A suspicious narrow attic space periodically flashes on screen. Obviously, their significance was lost on me.
I really didn’t mind, because watching “The Tree of Life” is hypnotic. Vivid and mesmerizing cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki is astounding to behold. Images of a newborn’s sole of the foot and a dinosaur stomping on a raptor are somehow on a par with one another in this quiet query into the cosmos.
Malick’s take on the eternal scheme of things in “The Tree of Life” transports its audience beyond the universe. Even if you don’t get it, it’s a ride that you definitely want to take.
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