CANNES REVIEW: Tree of Life Is All About Life; But Does Malick Care Much for People?
Dad is tough on the boys, schooling them in proper table manners he doesn't observe himself and rousing them early on Sundays so they can all head to church where he, formerly an aspiring musician and now some sort of inventor, plays the organ. Mom is the one who looks on in silence, protecting the boys when she can, occasionally dipping a toe into the family sprinkler to rinse bits of cut grass from her bare feet (because the water spurting forth from that sprinkler sure looks good in the sunlight).
Malick is at his best when he lets his guard down, which is rarely -- there's nothing casual about him as a director. But in this section of the movie, Malick (who both wrote and directed) does manage here and there to set aside his highly attuned aesthetics enough to capture some of the texture of family life, particularly as it was in the '50s. In one sequence a DDT truck breezes down the street with little boys following behind, jumping up and down gleefully in the puffy clouds of white smoke it leaves in its wake. At one point the older boy (the characters don't call one another by name, but his name is Jack -- he's the one who'll grow up to be Sean Penn, and he's played, with sure-footed serious-mindedness, by Hunter McCracken) betrays the trust of his younger brother (Laramie Eppler) by injuring him slightly with an airgun. Later, he attempts an apology by kissing his brother's hurt arm. The brother makes a big show of brushing the kisses away, but the two eventually reach the kind of uneasy, unbreakable truce that sometimes interlaces siblings for life. It's the movie's finest moment.
There's also a third brother who's mystically absent through most of the movie, maybe because he's not the protagonist nor does he die. Some kids have all the luck. But then, The Tree of Life isn't really about people as much as it's about "life" in some broad, waving-of-the-arms sense. There certainly is a lot of filmmaking going on here: Malick grabs our attention with diminutive jump cuts; he often shoots characters in three-quarters profile, so we're left to wonder what their faces might be saying; he invents dream images (like a slightly airborne Chastain pirouetting among the trees) and inserts them in unexpected places. There's also lots of majestic orchestral music, courtesy of Alexandre Desplat, Bach and, presumably, God.
And then there are those visuals: A father fondling his newborn babe's translucent toes. Dreamy, idyllic suburban '50s streets that look as if they've been shot not with the most technically advanced movie camera money can buy but with something better, the Brownie camera of memory. Those sunflowers, standing bright and hopeful. Lubezski knows how to do it, all right.
But Lubezski -- as he's shown in Children of Men, Great Expectations, Sleepy Hollow, and any number of extraordinary-looking films that he's worked on -- knows how to do other things, too. Like shoot a scene so that the emotions of the characters are more compelling than their surroundings, no matter how beautiful those surroundings may be. It puzzles me that people think of Malick as a strong visual filmmaker. His movies are often gorgeous-looking -- that was true even of The New World, which probably tops even Tree of Life in the pretentious snoozefest department.
But strong visuals don't necessarily equal strong visual storytelling. If Malick could tell a story mostly with pictures -- and faces -- why would he need so many voice-overs? There are some good performances here, to the extent that Malick allows us to focus on them: Pitt, in particular, captures the essence of preoccupied dadness. As he schools his boys in the art of respecting the line dividing their property from a neighbor's, or takes them all out to eat at a local diner, he's both distanced and affectionate in the way many of us may remember our own dads to have been. Chastain has less latitude: She's cast in the role of beatific mom-symbol, and it constrains her.
I can already hear the chorus of dissenters: But you just don't understand! Tree of Life a tone poem made by a genius! You need to see it again, or at least think about it a lot more! Admittedly, in this particular case, deadline constraints demanded some pretty rapid processing. But I don't think I'd find much more beneath the surface of Tree of Life if I thought about it for 12 more hours or 12 more days. Malick is doing what lots of directors do as they get older and ponder larger issues. I'm sympathetic, at least, to his intent. But he's trying to answer big questions by making the biggest movie possible. Where is God when you need him? The one place he forgets to look is in his characters' eyes.
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