(*homocinematically inclined)

Monday, August 8, 2011

Reverend's Review: A Theological Tree Worth Scaling

Terrence Malick's long-awaited The Tree of Life had its world premiere at May's Cannes Film Festival and received a decidedly mixed reaction. Reportedly, as many attendees booed as applauded it but the film was ultimately awarded the Palme D'Or, the festival's top prize. It has similarly received as many pans as kudos from US critics since opening in limited release here, and has grossed a mere $9 million at the box office to date.

Malick is the much-revered but far from prolific auteur responsible for such thinking-person's epics as Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line. The Tree of Life is only his seventh film in over 40 years as a director. His movies are naturalistic, frequently wordless, lengthy (this one is 2 ½ hours) and slow moving, all of which translates as "dull" to many modern filmgoers. I do agree with most, though, that Malick's last venture — 2005's The New World, based on the story of Pocahontas — was a colossal bore.

The Tree of Life, however, is easily Malick's warmest movie and may well endure as his masterpiece... although the obnoxious heckler at the screening I attended would surely disagree. It is also a profoundly theological work. While different viewers may draw different conclusions, the movie struck me as being about nothing so much as God's relationship with what God has created. This creation, as depicted in The Tree of Life, includes planets, dinosaurs, and a Texas family struggling with the untimely death of one of its members.

Brad Pitt gives a terrific, multi-layered performance as the domineering head of the O'Brien family, which also includes his wife (the radiant Jessica Chastain) and their three precocious boys. Oldest son Jack (played by newcomer Hunter McCracken as a youngster and Oscar-winner Sean Penn as an adult) increasingly challenges his father's authority as he matures. This serves as a fairly obvious but effective metaphor for many people's relationship with God and/or the faith in which they were raised while transitioning from childhood to adulthood.

Mrs. O'Brien comments early on in The Tree of Life about the choice human beings must make between the order of Nature which, she says, "seeks its own good," or that of Grace, "which seeks the good of all." Saints Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, among others, would appreciate this framing device. The eternal tension between Grace and Nature is subsequently illustrated via gorgeous, painterly sequences (by George Lucas's special effects house, Industrial Light & Magic) replicating the creation of the universe and Earth's primitive past, as well as through Jack's decades-long effort to reconcile the family's loss and his feelings toward his father.

Most of what constitutes dialogue in the movie is intimate voiceovers, wherein the characters question God and themselves about whatever meaning there might be behind everyday events great and small. That makes The Tree of Life a film that must be listened to carefully, which apparently is increasingly difficult for today's cineplex attendees. The excellent music score — much of it woven from seemingly disparate classical and contemporary sources — by Alexandre Desplat (The King's Speech) similarly helps to make this an aural as well as a visual experience. Luminous cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki (Children of Men) accentuates the latter dimension.

Being a Terrence Malick movie, much of The Tree of Life is deliberately paced and intentionally vague. Roger Ebert has compared it to 2001: A Space Odyssey in scope, but I didn't find Malick's work nearly as confounding as Stanley Kubrick's sci-fi/pseudo-religious classic. Adventurous moviegoers who don't require over-amplified sound and 3D glasses (although this is one movie that would be even more spectacular in 3D) will likely be enthralled as I was. The Tree of Life is one of the very best films of 2011 thus far, no matter what its more graceless detractors are saying.

Reverend's Rating: A-

UPDATE: The Tree of Life is now available on DVD and Blu-rayfrom

Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Blade California.

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