Written & Directed by Terrence Malick
Cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki
Starring Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, Jessica Chastain, Hunter McCracken
Film Editing by Hank Corwin, Jay Rabinowitz, Daniel Rezende, Billy Weber & Mark Yoshikawa
Jeez, where to begin? There are so many incredible things to be said about The Tree of Life – it’s truly a beautiful and triumphant achievement in cinematic poetry. So, undoubtedly, many moviegoers will walk away from this film scratching their heads. If you’re unfamiliar with director Terrence Malick’s style then don’t bother.
It’s not for you.
If you like movies where characters say things like, “Semper Fi, motherfucker!” or “My stepfather tried to rape me, and he’s a werewolf,” then don’t even see The Tree of Life.
Not to repeat myself, but… it’s just not for you. It’s the kind of movie that close-minded moviegoers might consider a “risk” since, like, there are hardly any explosions and you don’t need 3D glasses to indulge in the magic.
Maybe you’ll like it, maybe I’m wrong.
We’ll never know unless you’re willing to give it a chance.
Basically, The Tree of Life is a nostalgic portrait of a small-town American upbringing in Waco, Texas during the 1950s. The story flows and unfolds in sequences, non-linear vignettes, intertwining stories from the past and future that mesh seamlessly. The film also depicts a much larger picture, a story told on a broader scale – the creation of life – displayed brilliantly in a way reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.
In fact, famed special effects supervisor Douglas Trumbull – who worked on Kubrick’s 1967 deep-space classic – was in charge of the visual effects for The Tree of Life. So, instead of relying on computer-generated imagery, Trumbull and visual effects supervisor Dan Glass opted to go the old-fashioned route to recreate the segments that depict the earth’s formation. In an industry overran by green-screens and CGI, it’s refreshing to see somebody willing to get their hands dirty.
“We worked with chemicals, paint, fluorescent dyes, smoke, liquids, CO2, flares, spin dishes, fluid dynamics, lighting and high speed photography to see how effective they might be,” Trumbull told Cinematography.com. “We did things like pour milk through a funnel into a narrow trough and shoot it with a high-speed camera and folded lens, lighting it carefully and using a frame rate that would give the right kind of flow characteristics to look cosmic, galactic, huge and epic.”
To me, the cinematography is the most rewarding aspect of The Tree of Life. I like to regard Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki as one of the top cinematographers in the game today, capturing breath-taking images that evoke emotions you haven’t felt since you last felt them. If they say a picture is worth a thousand words, well, what happens when you’re shooting at 24 frames per second?
“Photography is not used to illustrate dialogue or a performance,” Lubezki told the Los Angeles Times. “We’re using it to capture emotion so that the movie is very experiential. It’s meant to trigger tons of memories, like a scent or a perfume.”
(For more on Chivo, check out this great LA Times profile on his work and his collaboration with Malick.)
One of Malick’s greatest contributions to the film is the performances he seems to solicit from the young actors, who reportedly weren’t even given a script before takes; they were simply told what to do before the camera started rolling. Malick understands how to communicate his vision, his story, through the work of the cast and their conflicting interactions, which is a tribute to his prowess as a director. The actors’ body language does most of the work, while Malick commands from behind the camera like an orchestra’s conductor, creating an atmosphere that feels both familiar and intrusive.
The cast is superb. Jessica Chastain gives a remarkable performance as Mrs. O’Brien, the graceful, soft-spoken matriarch of the movie. Sean Penn is both enigmatic and vulnerable as the lead character, an architect, reflecting on his childhood after the death of his younger brother. Brad Pitt gives one of the most button-down performances of his career as the sternly pragmatic Mr. O’Brien. Hunter McCracken is the real star of the film, our reluctant hero, the child version of Penn’s character. A majority of McCracken’s lines are delivered in the form of a gentle voice-over or pre-lapped dialogue. He spends much of his screen time flashing facial expressions that can’t easily be translated. On a side note, Laramie Eppler, who plays the O’Brien’s middle son, really looks like he could be related to Brad Pitt. That’s insanely accurate casting.
The soundtrack is haunting but peaceful, an equal blend of youthful optimism and straight-up fear. Each segment of the film has its own unique brand of music that compliment the images. The original score, composed by Alexandre Desplat, is spliced with renowned classical piano pieces that are guaranteed to give you goosebumps. Here’s a great blog post from IndieWire detailing all 37 songs that appear in the film.
Mostly meditative choral pieces, requiems, slowly growing classical or opera pieces and occasionally something more trance-inducing and ambient, the music isn’t something you’re likely going to rock on your iPod (ok, maybe some tracks before bed), but if you want a quick peek window into the mood, tone and timbre of Malick’s latest picture, the music… will definitely guide you there.
One, two… Five editors? Ya goddamn right. I mean, given the nature of the film (and the nearly three hour running time), each editor brings a unique perspective to the final cut, making each sequence seem fresh and interesting. Among the editors, Daniel Rezende and Billy Weber are names that stand out to me. Rezende is known for his work on the films of Fernando Meirelles like City of God and Blindness. Weber collaborated with Malick on his previous film The Thin Red Line.
One Last Thing…
If you were expecting a traditional movie review that sums up the film in a few paragraphs, well… tough shit, because it’s hard to review an experience without being sentimental. And that’s exactly what The Tree of Life is.
It’s an experience.
Or maybe you will.
You won’t know unless you give it a chance.