Saturday, February 18, 2012

Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life”: Stanley Kubrick Meets Ozzie and Harriet

Who would have guessed that the only truly experimental Oscar nominee for Best Picture of the Year would be a Catholic film? Imagine the Stanley Kubrick of “2001: A Space Odyssey” making a film version of Ozzie and Harriett, the perfect TV family of four from the 1950s, complete with a guitar-playing younger brother. You’ll have a pretty good idea about Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life.”

In a quintessential suburban American family of the post-WWII era, Brad Pitt plays a naval veteran whose strict parenting of three sons grows increasingly edgy when his finances falter. The eldest son in particular feels the sharp edge of paternal expectation. In flash-forwards Sean Penn plays this rebellious son as a grown man, fighting to reconcile himself to memories of his father’s stern treatment. 

If you were blown away as I was over 30 years ago by Malick’s “Days of Heaven,” starring a very young Richard Gere, you won’t be surprised by the ethereal work of his camera here as it floats behind, above, and around the characters in rhythm with a spiritual life that runs through the film like a thrilling stream. You will certainly be struck by the disembodied voice of a young man praying, heard over the very first image and persisting throughout the film.

But what sets “The Tree of Life” apart is an extraordinary sequence about a third of the way into the film when the family narrative pauses for about ten minutes and we are treated to an odyssey through outer and inner space. The awesome creative Presence behind life itself is evoked by images of everything from sperm streaking toward an ovum to jaw-dropping deep space shots—and everything in between, including dinosaurs.

This is a pro-life film where life is conceived on both the grandest cosmic scale and the realest human one. Jessica Chastain plays Pitt’s wife and mother to his three boys. With her fiery red hair and porcelain skin she is a madonna who can float magically in her own backyard but also a tough mother who can dare her husband to a fistfight when he crosses lines he should not.

Although it won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, “The Tree of Life” almost certainly will not win the Oscar for Best Picture, not against the likes of “The Artist,” “Hugo,” and “The Descendants.” But it is a film every Catholic, every Christian—OK every “spiritual” human being—should Netflix today.

I saw the film in good old-fashioned celluloid in a lecture hall at Massachusetts Institute of Technology as part of an MIT lecture series. The celluloid showed signs of wear and the muffled sound system made the whispery soundtrack difficult for my old ears to pick up. But it was still an extraordinary experience watching such a religious film packed with eye-popping scientific imagery, while surrounded by some of the smartest young scientists currently living in greater Boston. At least a few of the watchers were audibly, visibly awed.


  1. I'd like to see this movie.

    Have you seen October Baby? Does it compare?

  2. Amy, I have not seen October Baby, although I'd like to.

  3. Thanks, I'll put it on my nexflix list (if they have it). Rarely do I read a movie review that actually persuades me to watch it, ha! - Oh, I like the simplicity of your blog, too. Nicely put together -


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