“Tree of Life” Sinks Roots at Tropic
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades
Okay, let me tell you right upfront that I couldn’t get a screener DVD for Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life.” So I will come back to you with a more critical appraisal after I’ve actually seen it. My friends who have caught the film in other cities are giving me mixed feedback.
Nonetheless, I’m eager to catch the current showing at the Tropic Cinema, for Malick is a director whose work I’ve long admired.
Malick isn’t very prolific, only five feature films in 40 years. After “Days of Heaven” (1978)” he waited twenty years to do his next film, “The Thin Red Line” (1998). He has been described as “one of the great enigmas of contemporary filmmaking, a shadowy figure whose towering reputation rests largely on a very small body of work.”
A thinking man’s director, he studied philosophy at Harvard and was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford (but left without earning a doctorate). He did a noted translation of Heidegger’s “Vom Wesen des Grundes” (“The Essence of Reasons”). Malick taught philosophy at MIT. Later he wrote think pieces for Newsweek and The New Yorker.
Then he earned a MFA at the American Film Institute Conservatory and became a filmmaker.
With the help of Jack Nicholson, he got work doing script rewrites. Though not used, he banged out early drafts of “Dirty Harry” and “Great Balls of Fire!” The movie “Deadhead Miles” based on his script was scraped, considered unreleasable by the studio.
In 1973, he wrote and directed “Badlands,” a minor masterpiece based on the murder spree of Charles Starkweather and his girlfriend.
His next film was “Days of Heaven,” a lyrical love triangle set among turn-of-the-century farm workers of the Texas Panhandle. Visually stunning, it won an Academy Award for Best Cinematography. And Malick picked up the prize for Best Director at the 1979 Cannes Film Festival.
Following that thundering success, Malick began working on a screenplay titled “Q,” a concept that explored the origins of life on earth. However, during the film’s pre-production, he suddenly moved to Paris to live in seclusion. Vanity Fair referred to him as “The Runaway Genius.”
His disappearance was attributed to the studio’s objections to “Q” – seen as a “long, rambling, almost incoherent look at the beginning of the world that was little more than just images.”
Reemerging two decades later, he directed “The Thin Red Line,” a loose adaptation of James Jones’s World War II novel. Although not ultimately a winner, the film was nominated for seven Academy Awards.
That was followed by “The New World,” his retelling of the Pocahontas story.
Malick’s films are typically period pieces with a voice over by one of the main characters. “The Tree of Life” is true to form. As for going back to earlier times, one of my friends commented, “I was following the movie pretty well until the dinosaurs appeared.”
Much of the criticism is aimed at the film’s fragmented and non-linear narrative style. “The Tree of Life” gives us a middle-aged man’s childhood memories of his family life in 1950s Texas. Yet it takes side trips into space and time, exploring the meaning of life on earth.
Jack O’Brien (Sean Penn) is an architect who begins to think back to the death of his 19-year-old brother as he observes a tree being planted outside his office. He reminisces about growing up with his strict father and permissive mother (Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain) in Waco, Texas.
This existential exercise in filmmaking may in fact be a psychological autobiography. The son of an oil company geologist, Malick was raised in Oklahoma and Texas, where he worked on farms and oil fields as a young man. His father Emil Malick was a stern figure of Lebanese descent. His brother Chris was badly burned in a car accident. His younger brother Larry committed suicide.
The genesis for the film was that earlier treatment titled “Q” that he walked away from thirty years ago. When more recently pitched to River Road Entertainment chief Bill Pohlad he called it “crazy,” but wound up backing it.
“The Tree of Life” was awarded the Palme d’Or at the 2011 Cannes International Film Festival. Yet it drew boos as well as applause at its Cannes premiere.
Some reviews have called it “dazzling” and “a transcendent achievement.” Others have termed it “pretentious” and “sanctimonious mopey male egotism disguised as a search for meaning.” Based on all this, I would probably call it “polarizing,” a love-it-or-hate-it film experience.
Let me know where you come out … and I’ll share my observations with you next week.
[from Solares Hill]