THE TREE OF LIFE
(directed by Terrence Malick, 2011)
****+ (out of 5)
“We never cease to stand like curious children before the great Mystery into which we are born.” (Albert Einstein)
. Uber-brilliant cinema auteur Terrence Malick has done it again. With THE TREE OF LIFE, he cements his place in cinema history among the greatest directors since the advent of film.
. As a frivolous youth, I went to the art house cinemas to see his first films BADLANDS in 1973 and DAYS OF HEAVEN in 1978- both critical darlings of their time. Being a callow dilettante who thought he knew it all, I was singularly unimpressed with both. I had been trained by other, lesser, more ‘commercial’ directors to expect films to fit the Hollywood mould. I hadn’t come close to developing the patience necessary to enjoy a slow-moving, impressionistic film- which is all that Mr. Malick makes. I wanted plot, conflict, action, resolution. His films seemed to offer a near-static, idyllic vision of the world around us that was very pretty to look at, but seemed empty and pointless to me at the time. I struggled to stay awake in the Fox Venice theatre. This director seemed to be a cure for insomnia more than anything else.
. (It’s amazing to think how far we used to travel to see a film that excited us, in the days before cable and home video and the Internet. “Art films” like this were generally only showed in the urban centers, so we would drive long, long distances to satisfy our cinema-jones, without a second thought. Gas was much cheaper then and tickets were 2 or 3 bucks, tops.)
. Flash forward 20 years. This is necessary because Mr. Malick only makes one film every 6 or 7 years. (THE TREE OF LIFE is only his 5th feature. At this rate he better damn well live to be 140!) It is 1998. THE THIN RED LINE is released. I am a different man now. Well- I AM a man. When I saw his other films I was a green teen. Again, the glowing critical reaction. Now able to endure the most glacial and obtuse Bergman film (and actually enjoy it!) I am willing to forgive Mr. M. his early somnambulistic efforts. Good thing. I was stunned by the awesome beauty and grace of THE THIN RED LINE. A gorgeous, thoughtful film about… war? How could this be? Then came THE NEW WORLD in 2005, like a welcome sock to the imagination. Slow-moving, yes, wispy, ephemeral, langourous, internal- more of a tone poem than a movie really- and I was held in rapture! Perhaps I had seen other films as beautiful to watch. Never had I seen one more beautiful. Now, the stretch between Terrence Malick masterpieces became a tortuous wait.
. I have rarely (if ever) felt more anticipation and excitement about an upcoming release. I know (too well) from painful experience that expectations only get in the way of experiencing a film on its own terms and are thus the greatest obstacle to simple enjoyment of a movie. I used all my willpower to ignore this gnawing voice that was counting down the days to its release. (They showed the trailer to THE NEW WORLD a good three long months before it played locally- sheer torture, the bastards.) But the trailer to THE TREE OF LIFE was so stunning it was difficult not to feed these expectations the way one feeds a dog under the table, even though you know you’re not supposed to. Rarely has a movie with such an awesome trailer been as awesome as advertised. (After all, they pick the most compelling snippets to sell a film, don’t they?) Glad to say, the trailers for THE TREE OF LIFE contained that rare element of truth in advertising. The film is as good as the trailer. It’s better. It’s as good AS ANY FILM I HAVE EVER SEEN… MAYBE BETTER.
. If you love movies, if you are a deep thinker and an even deeper feeler, if you love openly and passionately, if you treasure life and revel in its passing and passages: GET YOUR KEYS. HOP IN THE CAR. GO TO THE MOVIES. SEE THIS FILM. It won’t be around for long. Americans will not dig it. Most of us will find it a befuddling, maybe exasperating (or worse- boring) waste of time. It is a puzzlement: a non-linear mystery befitting the subject: life, death, the human soul- reflecting the vast panorama of life as we know it. Deeply human. Rich. Evocative. Moving. Brilliantly crafted, photographed and edited. A dazzling feast for the senses, it is far too contemplative for the average Joe, THE TREE OF LIFE requires too much patience and openness of most filmgoers, and an off-putting willingness to dig deep into the tender tissue of the human psyche, where probing can be very painful. This vivid meditation has the courage to confront and reflect life at its most basic and elemental, in all its indescribable beauty and deep, devastating heartbreak. I wept quietly throughout most of the film. I’m weeping now as I write this review. Remember that spellbinding scene in AMERICAN BEAUTY where the ‘kids’ watch a video of a plastic bag being blown about randomly by a capricious breeze? This whole film has the transcendence of that scene. It’s a sumptious feast for the heart- a rich banquet of color and sound and nature and architecture, a profound rumination on time and family and hope and God… In short- it sure ain’t for everyone!
. But if you are NOT the average Jane, if you want more from life in all its richness and splendor (even in your movies!) this will be an unforgettable excursion into light and pattern and movement and breath and tears and joy. Considering how many great movies are out there in the cinematic ether that I have yet to see, I almost never go to see a film twice in the theatre. Rarely are they good enough to justify what have become for me, exorbitant admission prices. You can bet your ass I’ll make an exception for this stunning work of incomparable art!
. And as for BADLANDS and DAYS OF HEAVEN? I’m moving those puppies to the top of my Netflix queue!
. Now.. who wants to go with me to see the new Terrence Malick movie again?
© Kevin Paul Keelan and lastcre8iveiconoclast, 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kevin Paul Keelan and lastcre8iveiconoclast with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.