By Adam Frazier
art / noun /ärt/
The expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.
Powerful. Beautiful. Violent. Profound. Arduous. Illuminating.
Terrence Malick’s latest film, ”The Tree of Life”, serves as an ambitious masterwork that braids the threads of one Texas family in the 1950s with the creation of the universe. The film follows the life of Jack (Sean Penn), the eldest son of the O’Brien family, through the innocence of childhood to the disenchantment of adulthood. Jack attempts to reconcile a strained relationship with his father (Brad Pitt).
Since 1973, Malick has made only five motion picures. His latest explores the conflict between nature and grace — a struggle between a spiritual life of elegance and beauty and one of more primitive survival. Jack’s mother, played by Jessica Chastain, embodies the former, while Brad Pitt represents the latter.
In juxtaposition to the family-driven story, we witness the violent origins of the universe — the Big Bang — hot and dense, expanding rapidly into infinity. The churning oceans and volcanic eruptions of Earth in its infancy. The evolution of life from single-celled organisms to invertebrates — from jellyfish to dinosaur.
Malick’s piece is unburdened by chronological order and eschews the cushy, uncomplicated task of beginning, middle, end. Those seeking structure will no doubt be frustrated by Malick’s 138-minute tone poem comprised of meditative, dreamy visuals. It is a narrative approach that embraces the gaps and chooses not to use dialogue as a means of delivering exposition.
”The Tree of Life” challenges the viewer to fill in the blanks — make their own connections and conclusions. It is a reflection on the circle of life, of harmonious creation out of the chaos of the Big Bang. Brad Pitt delivers a commanding performance as Mr. O’Brien, his best since 1999’s ”Fight Club”. Jessica Chastain shines as a beacon of elegance and grace, the perfect contrast to Pitt’s forceful yet restrained presence.
”Tree of Life” is a rich, rewarding, cinematic experience. Yes, the film is flawed (Sean Penn’s brooding adult Jack has little to offer when compared to his younger self, portrayed by Hunter McCracken) but ambitious – so ambitious that even its flaws can be praised as inspired attempts to surpass the stagnant, simple-minded cinema which has become so common place today.
I could easily see Malick’s work receiving nominations for Best Supporting Actor (Pitt) , Best Cinematography and even Best Visual Effects. While ”Tree of Life” won the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, it’s hard to imagine Academy types embracing it as Best Picture, but of course with 10 nominations, there’s still a chance the Academy will celebrate a film that aspires to be more than a pre-packaged political message.
Staggeringly beautiful and jaw-dropping, Malick’s film is reminiscent of Kubrick’s ”2001: A Space Odyssey” – a polarizing, hypnotic work of art that goes beyond the bounds of contemporary cinema. ”The Tree of Life” is a masterful piece of cinema that encourages speculation yet confirms nothing.