Every now and then--perhaps once or twice in a generation--someone throws a lifeline to the movies. Treading water in a lake of mediocrity by clinging to special effects that are neither special nor effective, film can often be confused with other media. It's not unusual, for instance, to experience the same market-driven blandness on a big screen, small screen (television) or smaller screen (smart phone).
As a result, film's ability to astonish has been diluted. Once upon a time, pioneers like Charles Chaplin, Orson Welles and Federico Fellini blazed new trails, but almost every director since has chosen the road most traveled. But then there is Terrence Malick (Badlands, Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line, The New World). In The Tree of Life, the writer/director guides a movie back to adventurous landscapes, reminding us that at its best, film has more in common with poetry than any other art form.
The Tree of Life is about imagery--rope swings, clotheslines, jack-o-lanterns and a mother's apron--but it is also about imperfection, faith and being in awe of life, subjects most directors never dare approach.
While so many contemporary filmmakers are interchangeable (Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez could readily direct each other's movies, as could J.J. Abrams and Steven Spielberg), Malick is peerless. His story and characters exist somewhere between dreams and consciousness, floating among fantasy, memory and fear.
Labeling The Tree of Life a masterpiece portends pretension. In fact, when the movie won the Palme d'Or at this year's Cannes Film Festival, I shuddered in fear of a movie placed on a pedestal rather than simply on a screen. But in two viewings, I was thrilled by its power.
The story of The Tree of Life is indeed the story of life itself. While anchored by a middle-American family in 1950s Texas, it also explores the human species. I watched more than a few people squirm in their seats (and a few walk out) during Kubrick-esque scenes of the origins of the universe. But there is not a wasted frame in the 138-minute movie. Audiences are challenged to consider faith in a deity, faith in one another and, ultimately, faith in themselves. It's heady stuff and not for someone looking for a simple diversion.
Brad Pitt gives his finest performance to date. Forget his previous Oscar nominations (12 Monkeys and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button). This is the one that should garner an Academy Award nod. With the sparest of dialogue, Pitt fits perfectly into the suit of a husband and father constructed of caution and self-doubt. His co-star, Jessica Chastain, plays his wife and mother of three boys with mystery and wonder.
At its core, The Tree of Life examines the most basic moral elements that define us by our souls rather than our skins. If you're not afraid of a film unlike any other, The Tree of Life beckons you to a nice spot just under its lowest-hanging branch. The dappled shade is heavenly.