Monday, February 9, 2015

The Tree of Life review

Throughout the history of film, many directors have been utterly fascinated by time as a concept. The passage of it, how it affects people, if it's possible to alter it. The great filmmaker Terrence Malick is certainly interested in time, but to leave it at that would be doing him an enormous disservice. Malick is interested in time, but he looks at it differently. Time is a force of nature for Malick. No different than the vast and rolling storm clouds he photographed in Days of Heaven. No different than the expansive plains of the Southwest in Badlands. Time is an unstoppable entity that is intertwined with anything and everything. One does not outrun it any more than they would outrun a mountain. It is simply always present and moving. Malick's film, The Tree of Life, looks at time as a constant fluid, moving back and forth, flowing together like paint mixed with water. In the movie, the audience follows the creation of the universe, from beginning to end, juxtaposed with the evolution of a small family of five in the 1950's American Midwest. Malick descends on childhood, watching them grow and change. Marital disputes and stick ball in the streets set against the backdrop of the literal infinite. Another filmmaker with different intentions might see this small family life vs. big universe story as an opportunity to show how insignificant and small we as a human race are. To show that little problems do not matter at all and it is all going to end eventually. Malick just isn't that cynical. It is quite possible that small familial difficulties don't really matter in the grand scheme of things, but that doesn't make them any less emotional and heartbreaking as a supernova or formation of a galaxy. Malick shoots these grand solar system movements with the same awe-filled eye as he shoots a small child looking up at sunlight coming through the trees. The small child is Jack O'Brien (Hunter McCracken), an average and sometimes troubled boy growing up mid-twentieth century. His father (Brad Pitt) is a rough man who treats his children with discipline and occasional anger. The actions of Mr. O'Brien seem cruel and abusive by today's standards, but they were less so at the time. And Mr. O'Brien does love his children and wife. He wants nothing but the best for them. His methods are tough and painful, but in his mind this is what will make them strong for the gritty "real" world that lies ahead in their path of life. In the end he accepts the error of his ways. "I wanted to be loved because I was great; A big man. I'm nothing. Look at the glory around us; trees, birds. I lived in shame. I dishonored it all, and didn't notice the glory. I'm a foolish man." He knows he did bad things. But he changed. Nature, as a whole, did not change. It is still as glorious as it has ever been, unblinking and constant. As Jack grows up to be a man, he works as a disgruntled architect in New York. The wind swept fields and everlasting summer nights of his youth have been replaced by looming skyscrapers and fixtures of metal and glass. Jack is unhappy. "Everyone is greedy. It's getting worse." he says. It seems something big is on the horizon, something grander than before. In what seems to be dreams Jack treks through desert terrain and surreal landscapes, filled with women in white dresses and door frames, leading to where? Jack is looking for answers. Is there a God? Why was his brother killed so young? Is he important? Malick does not know the answers to these questions, although he is interested in the answers. The film is better for it. It is not a movie of staunch facts and mathematical answers, but of hopeful questions and wide eyed amazement. The Tree of Life is a film of ambition matched only by Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. Yet, it is a remarkably different film. Malick resembles Kubrick in his visual eye for epic events and philosophical intrigue in the unknown and the beginning of time. Where they differ, is in the way the two portray these grand sweeps of time. Malick is warmer. He has more faith in humanity, despite their multitudes of flaws. He is also looking at the whole of time in a different way. Where Kubrick saw it as a beginning-to-end type manner, eventually coalescing with a trippy divergence into another reality, Malick sees the history of time as a series of rivers, flowing into each other with a constant fluidity. It makes for a glorious and incredible viewing experience. The film itself really is not for everyone. In the most rigid sense of the word, it does not have a plot. It looks at life in an impressionistic manner, showing a series of moments and feelings. In the way Malick has portrayed it, I felt it to be remarkably powerful. However, if one is looking for the usual plot formula, they shouldn't be looking here. Yet, I would say it does have a plot with a beginning, middle, and end. It is the story of everything. Not just life itself, and even more than the universe. Time. It is the story of time.