Roots in 'The Tree of Life' too deep for some

August 5, 2011 

The Tree of Life won this year’s Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival.

Before you get too impressed, last year the Palme d’Or went to Thailand’s Uncle Boonmee Who can Recall His Past Lives. It’s one of the worst films in the history of Earth.

-- Local show times, theaters, trailer.

Some of you will likely stick writer/director Terrance Malick’s The Tree of Life in a “worst ever” category. Others won’t.

While I haven’t seen all the submissions from Cannes, in my opinion the award is deserved. This isn’t to say Malick’s movie isn’t troublesome. It is difficult to follow. Some may think impossible. That sums up the bottom line: Malick’s film is both brilliant and boring.

You’ll have to decide.

As the title suggests, Malick’s movie starts at the tree of life. It mixes God, the source of all life, with grace, forgiveness and love. Layered into the plot are dysfunctional relationships within a family, with a focus on conflict between a boy and his father.

The Tree of Life begins with a quote from chapter 38 of the Bible’s book of Job. God asks a confused and questioning Job where he was when he — God — poured the foundations of the Earth. Questions, quotations and comments meant to guide you along the plot’s multi-tracked path are mumbled underneath a soaring, mostly classical music soundtrack.

They do and don’t help. “Do” and “don’t” pretty much define most Malick projects. You understand, but you don’t. And if you don’t understand, you don’t care anyway.

The Tree of Life is a visual feast and often looks like something you’d find on PBS’ Nova or the Discovery Channel. Instead of using modern computer graphic systems to create his special effects universe, Malick hired 2001: A Space Odyssey effects creator Douglas Trumbull who does it the old-fashioned way. What you get from Trumbull and Malick are long stretches of imaginative visuals that play with your senses in powerful ways. It is time-warp eye candy.

If you don’t spend a lot of time on the science TV channels, you will be even more blown away.

And like Trumbull’s work in 2001 the visuals make sense within the structure of Malick’s loose plot. Key word: loose. Malick gives you lots of freedom to interpret what you see in your own way. Or what you see won’t make sense at all. But like the mostly plotless plot, what you’re seeing is so original you won’t care.


That leads us 360 degrees back to whether you like Malick films. The “story” — or so it is called — is set in a small suburb of Waco, Texas, in the 1950s. Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain play a married couple. Malick focuses on them and their two boys. He only uses a hand-held camera for those scenes. The hand held gets unusual results and adds an interesting dimension to their story.

With very little dialogue, the family — especially the older son — painfully works its way through childhood, life and death. The confused and angry boy tries to fit himself into a universe that makes no sense and — frankly — into a story that often makes no obvious sense either.

Death, redemption and reconciliation are displayed in scenes featuring Sean Penn as the boy as a grownup. Within that puzzle he’s still trying to fit the pieces of his own life puzzle together.

Terrance Malick movies are events. While not all of them are what you would call a “good” movie, each is brilliant in its own way. As noted earlier, some find Malick’s flicks akin to brain death. Others can’t wait for the next one.

I rarely find his films satisfactory or even enjoyable. However, you will always find me in the “can’t wait” category.

The Tree of Life needs to be seen. Even if it is just because you’ve never seen anything like it before.

Mr. Movie rating: 5 stars

Rated PG-13 for mature themes. It opens Friday, Aug. 5 at the Carmike 12.

5 stars to 4 1/2 stars: Must see on the big screen
4 stars to 3 1/2 stars: Good film, see it if it's your type of movie.
3 stars to 2 1/2 stars: Wait until it comes out on video.
2 stars to 1 star: Don't bother.
0 stars: Speaks for itself.

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