By Brian Lafferty
June 10, 2011 (San Diego) – The Tree of Life isn’t merely a movie. To call it an experience would be putting it mildly. It’s films like this that make me say, “This is why I go to the movies.” Only one other movie elicited such a response from me since I’ve been a film critic and it happened to be the best film of 2010: Gaspar Noe’s Enter the Void.
Helmed by the enigmatic Terrence Malick, The Tree of Life is a snapshot of the fifties. It depicts a time when children played outside instead of playing with video games and when families weren’t glued to the television set and the computer. Jack (Sean Penn) is a Chicago yuppie haunted by his dark childhood, his constant clashing with his strict father (Brad Pitt), and loss of innocence.
Like Days of Heaven (my only other exposure to Malick and what a great movie that is) he tells the story through images and utilizes dialogue sparingly. I use the term “story” loosely, however; I consider it more of a poetic mosaic of a young boy’s childhood.
When I remember my childhood, I don’t recall it in a linear fashion. I view it (and the various eras of my life) as part of a giant mosaic. Each “tile” is a memory. The tiles, the fragments of my childhood, are arranged not in strict chronological order but in a loose assemblage of events, which take place within a certain time span.
The “poetry” of the mosaic comes from Malick’s lyrical camerawork. In one scene Malick includes a shot of children playing. He tilts the camera upside down at an extreme high angle. This provides an arresting shot of the children’s life-sized shadows in the street.
Later, a truck sprays DDT in the neighborhood. The children run around and bathe in the gas, the camera following them slowly, getting engulfed in it.
Artistic and storytelling freedom results from this mosaic approach. There are scenes and shots that seemingly look random but succeed nevertheless.
One such scene is a powerful visual metaphor. In it, Jack swims out of his entirely flooded bedroom. As he gets out of the bedroom, the next shot is of his mother giving birth.
The scene looks like it doesn’t belong but it does and it works for several reasons. Firstly, the scene is beautifully shot with gorgeous blue hues. The bedroom looks like an underwater relic, too. Secondly, I could not see the metaphor coming until the payoff. Thirdly, and most importantly, it, like many scenes in The Tree of Life, comes out of nowhere and makes an impact. These scenes look out of place individually but they all are part of the larger picture.
Malick uses various camera angles and camera heights, mostly extremely high or extremely low. He shoots Jack’s early childhood Yasujiro Ozu style, from a low camera height. This gives us a child’s perspective of the world and a large sense of innocence that will be shattered.
Camera movement is constant and Malick thankfully uses a steadicam instead of going the handheld route. Games like Kick the Can, throwing a ball, and rolling around in grass are shot gracefully, allowing us to take in the nostalgia, the neighborhood, and the time period.
The Tree of Life is the latest in a series of slow-moving, meditative films, all of which are among the best movies of the year. It started with Of Gods and Men in March, continued with Meek’s Cutoff in May, and carried on with Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives last week. The Tree of Life is the best of them.
The Tree of Life is now playing at the Landmark Hillcrest.
A Fox Searchlight Pictures release. Director and writer: Terrence Malick. Original music: Alexandre Desplat. Cinematography: Emmanuel Lubezki. Cast: Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, Jessica Chastain, and Hunter McCracken. 138 minutes. Rated PG-13.