The Tree of Life: Let it just wash over you

Director Terrence Malick returns with his most audacious film yet.

For critics and cinephiles, a new Terrence Malick film is a cause for celebration. The director of Badlands, Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line and The New World is back with The Tree of Life, his fifth film in nearly 40 years. No director other than Stanley Kubrick has inspired this much obsession among his admirers, and it appears that Malick has made his 2001: A Space Odyssey — the film he has been working toward his entire career, that sums up everything he has been trying to convey in his previous work. Though shooting ended in the spring of 2008, Malick has spent the last three years editing the film and making sure every detail is perfect.

Many walking into The Tree of Life will be expecting no less than the re-birth of cinema (it's one of the most anticipated art films in years — if not decades), but all that anticipation can suck the life out of the movie. I can't say that Tree of Life is among the best movies I've ever seen, but it's certainly one of the most special. It's also a movie that makes the audience work throughout.

Tree of Life is a collage of moments and gestures detailing one man's idea of what life is and what happens after we die. Malick, a former Rhodes scholar and professor of philosophy at MIT, is showing you everything he's gleaned about life. His surrogate here is a middle-aged architect named Jack (Sean Penn), and the film begins with the most traumatic moment of his life: the death of his younger brother at age 19. Decades after the incident, Jack still struggles to comprehend it. Why did God let this happen?

Malick then takes the viewer to the very beginning, because to answer why God would take away a life you have to question why he would create one in the first place. This spectacular sequence starts with the big bang and the creation of our solar system, moving to the evolution of life on earth. (We even meet a few dinosaurs along the way.) This sequence has reminded many of the "Jupiter and Beyond the infinite" finale of 2001, and the fact that both films share the same special effects director (the legendary Douglas Trumbull) encourages this comparison. Truthfully, it reminded me more of the animated "Rite of Spring" segment from Fantasia, a simple operatic depiction of early life on earth as we would imagine while reading our science textbooks as kids.

The main portion of the film takes place in 1950s Waco, Texas. We follow the 11-year-old Jack (Hunter McCracken) as the awkwardness of adolescence sets in, but this isn't your ordinary montage of seminal coming-of-age clichés (first kiss, birthday parties, etc.). They are a string of strange and wondrous moments, some familiar (tension at the dinner table) and some that might only be significant to the director. But this portion of the film is more than just memories; it establishes the complex relationship between the boy, his parents and his younger brother, that will forever shape the rest of his life.

So what's it all mean? In the end, the film takes a huge leap of faith and tries to tie everything together. The final moment's a head-scratcher, as Jack seems to enter a place where all is forgiven and understood. Is it heaven? An epiphany? A heightened state of enlightenment? A prayer answered? Whatever it is, it helps Jack find closure.

I think you can tell by now that this is an art film with a capital A, and that's important to know going in. My best advice to a Malick newcomer is to sit back, don't worry about following any kind of plot points, let the images wash over you and give your brain a couple days to process it. If you expect to follow Tree of Life like a normal movie, you're going to be frustrated, bored and confused.

But don't take my word for it: See this movie as soon as possible and decide for yourself.

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