Portrait of the Artist as a Young Texan

A couple of weeks ago, in a haze of post-Cannes enthusiasm, I said of Terence Malick’s The Tree of Life: “I’m a sucker for cosmic spectacle, so Malick’s long-awaited Palme d’Or-winner might just do the trick for me.” I guessed right, because as soon as the screen filled with fireballs, asteroids, and planetary ballets, I was sucked in. The half-hour experimental film lodged in the middle of The Tree of Life held me rapt, glued to my seat, with my eyes wide open. (Mind you, this was at 10 AM on a Friday morning.) It’s like an expansion of the Rite of Spring sequence from Fantasia (or Boléro from Allegro Non Troppo), with a dose of Stan Brakhage and Godfrey Reggio.

Furthermore, I loved the dinosaurs. A lot of critics have derided the entire creation-of-earth sequence as misjudged, and they may be half-right, but let me posit this: in just a few prehistoric minutes, Malick outdid just about every other appearance of CGI dinosaurs ever. CGI dinosaurs are traditionally used, after all, as big, scary plot devices. Even Jurassic Park, the Citizen Kane of dinosaur movies, only gave its dinosaurs as much personality as was necessary for them to terrorize Laura Dern. Malick, however, treats his dinosaurs with as much tenderness and attention to detail as his human characters. It shows just how powerful special effects can be when used by a thoughtful filmmaker, self-indulgent as he may be.

My only problem with this abbreviated glimpse at the birth of the universe is that it makes The Tree of Life feel so piecemeal. Most of the film is devoted to Jack O’Brien—Sean Penn as an adult; the precocious Hunter McCracken as a boy—and his memories of childhood in 1950s Texas. The only real connective thread we get is the sense that the intimate is epic, that Jack’s personal development is analogous to the development of life on earth. Like much of the film itself, this logic is abstract, airy, and audacious, but slightly dissatisfying.

But that’s OK. The Tree of Life doesn’t have to be perfect, because it’s enthralling, poignant, and truly original, with enough quietly powerful imagery for several whole movies (possibly the ones Malick could’ve made in the past forty years). Edited in a swift-footed, anecdotal style that reminds me of Alain Resnais, with a camera that floats like a ghost and runs like a puppy, The Tree of Life darts with curious energy through Jack’s memories. We see his parents through his eyes: an angelic Jessica Chastain and a clean-cut, ex-Navy Brad Pitt who could be carved from the side of a mountain.

Sometimes these recollections will start to blend together; they’re so fragmentary and their borders are so ill-defined. But the film is unconcerned with narrative except in the broadest sense: Malick’s trying to capture the textures of childhood, its ebbs and flows, its guilty secrets and countless traumas. Sometimes he gets at this through fleeting father-and-son conversations, but more often it’s through glances and movements. Pitt and Chastain are only seen through Jack’s eyes, but their performances still speak about the joys of child-rearing and the tragedies of lost dreams.

Most of The Tree of Life unfolds with lyrical potency, tonally akin to a paean or a prayer. By this token, the film’s greatest failings are its occasional dips into bright, soppy sentiment. During a few fantastic interludes rife with whispered voiceover and, especially, during parts of the quasi-apocalyptic finale, The Tree of Life felt like the Lubezki-lensed equivalent to those tacky porcelain cherubs you see in thrift stores, or like the world’s greatest Hallmark Channel movie. But even then, and even when Sean Penn wanders superfluously around the fuzzy edges of the film, the evocation of family life is strong enough to carry the film along.

The Tree of Life was the first 2011 film I’ve seen. If the year yields anything else this good, I’ll be very, very happy.

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