Friday, June 24, 2011

A Lob Out of Right Field

So the plan was to head over to the local theater and see Pixar's latest, Cars 2. But I was snagged at the very last moment by Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life. I had seen the trailer when I saw Woody Allen's latest and I was intrigued. I showed up about two minutes after the start time for Tree, and made an executive decision to go I knew not where (I hadn't read a single word about it). Probably just as well, as the description might have scared me off.

But what an interesting movie. It's kind of two separate films--connected only in the most tenuous way--rather randomly mashed together. Part highlight reel from some Discovery Channel or National Geographic exploration of our universe, and part brooding meditation on the life of a particular (fictional) family in the '50s or '60s, it seems like a film that doesn't know what it wants to be, and hasn't known it for so long that THAT has kind of become what it wants to be: a film that wants to be a film that doesn't know what it wants to be. That's my excuse for a disjointed summary.

The human-centered part of the film stars Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain as the parents of this '50s family. They are shown (without any strict chronological order) raising three boys, with a particular focus on the trials and adventures of the eldest boy, Jack (Hunter McCracken). The father's ambitions for himself and his children form (as they naturally would in 1960 Texas) the rather ragged path which the family attempts to follow. Interspersed with these scenes, Sean Penn plays a now middle-aged Jack coping with the death of one of the other boys--an event which plays heavily in the human part of the film without being shown or even much referred to directly.

This family-based storyline is intermingled with absolutely stunning photography of the natural world, from the microscopically small to the cosmically big, all of it mashed together seemingly without any rhyme or reason. The images are so arresting that one almost waits on the edge of one's seat for the next episode. (The human story is also visually lovely, though in a much more standard cinematic fashion.) These scenes are underpinned beautifully by composer Alexandre Desplat, with a combination of famous and semi-famous existing works and original compositions; the soundtrack is lovely.

This celebration-of-nature part of the film really defies an easy description. The images are stunning and moving and profound; they reveal the awesome and extreme parts of the universe we inhabit. I'd venture that Malick is trying to use movie magic to put across his personal religious view of the world without being pinned down with any direct statement that (naturally) cannot be supported. Leave the canvas blank for our imaginations--but not so blank that we fail to insert Jebus. (The effect is very much like parts of Stanley Kubrick's monumental 2001: A Space Odyssey. The Jebus version.) The film opens with a Biblical quotation, and the whole human side of the story features a series of short voice-overs of family members offering up truncated prayers to, presumably, Jebus.

I naturally found the religious claptrap too much of a bad thing. And yet the effect of these overtly religious bits placed amid all the cosmic and astounding is to make mythological explanations of the universe seem ridiculous. Our stone-age attempts to explain the world Malick so beautifully shows us are laughably incapable of shedding any light whatsoever on these mysteries, especially when the scope of the universe is shown to us and our insignificance made plain. It's all manageable (barely) until the end where Malick--maybe running out of money?--tries to cobble together some photographic rendering of what he thinks awaits us at the end of life, a reunion of lost folks or some such hooey. This infantile deus ex machina (literally) rather brought the work of the previous two hours crashing down: why is Sean Penn old and the rest of the family young when he meets them? He's older than his mother! Why? How does he meet them if he's not dead? Is he dead? Why? Why are they on a beach? What does a beach have to do with anything? Where are the siblings and parents of the senior folks? Weren't the parents once kids themselves? Why isn't their heaven a return to those times? And what of the parents and siblings of the grandparents and so on? And where are the young folks' families, the living boys' families? Why did the clock apparently start and stop with this family at this brief click of time? Why not just put up a white placard with the words "Imagine what you like." Ludicrous. I'm trying to forget that as I evaluate.

But. (Deep breath.) When I sidestep this ham-handed detail, I'm moved by how wordlessly the story is told, by how few lines anyone has to move things along. The mother particularly (the lovely Jessica Chastain) speaks nary a word in the whole film, and yet she's kind of the guiding force of the family, the thread running in a straight line beneath the bullish father's jagged path. The natural world has nothing to do with the family's story, really, and yet it gives it all a perspective, oddly. The juxtaposition helps us to see this family as a group of natural organisms like all the rest that make up our world and universe: dinosaurs and plants and cells and dogs and supernovae and so on; they are part of nature: WE are part of nature, a nature that is breathtaking in its beauty and cruelty and vastness.

I think if I were a Jebus person, I might give it an A- or B+, and I applaud Malick for ambition if nothing else. But he gets demerits for not keeping the ball in the air the whole time. Honestly, it would have been a better film without Jebus, even if you like Jebus. (The groups of people standing about in the lobby afterward having a little post-film gathering about "god's plan" did not help my still-warm impressions.)

Grade: B


dbackdad said...

I wanted to see this and definitely will now.

We're in Manhattan Beach and went and saw Cars 2 with the family. It was good and I was pleased with the definite alternative fuels push of the plot. The voicework by the Brits in the cast, Michael Caine, Eddie Izzard and Emily Mortimer, was all outstanding. And though I pretty much cannot stand Larry the Cable Guy in any of his other forms, I am entertained by him as Tow Mater.

wunelle said...

Cars might be on today's docket. I've heard such mixed things about the film--mostly bad, actually--that it seems an aberration from what I love about Pixar. Still, they deserve a chance, I think.