Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Tree of Life

June 27, 2011

I wanted to catch this movie in the theaters because it won the Cannes Palm D'Or. While that should be a good endorsement, some really strange movies have also won the prize. This movie also comes with a director like Terrence Malick who is a philosopher as much as he is a film maker. I have seen "The Thin Red Line", and that was definitely not a typical war film. I do not really know what to expect with this one. 

The film is telling us about a man named Jack (Sean Penn) who seemed to be in the midst of a midlife depression. His thoughts bring us back to his childhood in the 1950s in a Texas town with his dad (Brad Pitt) and mom (Jessica Chastain) and his two younger brothers. Actually that is it. The episodes are random with no definite story to follow. 

I imagined the scenes appear as they would be seen in the mind of a middle-aged man. There was Jack's confusing interpretation of who and what his Dad really was. Was he a playful and affectionate father or a heartless authoritarian? As with most of us, the Mom is seen as angel, a quiet, and long-suffering woman who was always on his side. It is definitely stream of consciousness, as if Jack was confessing random memories to his priest or psychiatrist. 

In the beginning, Jack was also thinking about the death of one of his younger brothers (the second child in the family). In his flashbacks, Jack's memories about this younger brother also predominate, with some pretty tense scenes where Jack was seemingly trying to injure him. I guess there was sibling jealousy there as this second child had inherited their father's musical talents. Jack's youngest brother hardly figured in the memories, and we do not really know what happens to him. But we did see several disjointed memories about Jack's neighborhood, his friends, and boyhood pranks.

While I may have understood, and was even touched, by these family scenes, the rest of this film was going way over my head. Before segueing into the family flashbacks, there were very lengthy but magnificently shot scenes depicting the Creation of the World, complete with dinosaurs! What those wordless scenes ultimately have to do with the family story -- I really do not know. Similarly, there were the scenes at the end when the adult Jack seemed to have reunited with his other family members looking as they did in the 50s while walking in what looked like a barren wasteland. These were interspersed with several bizarre images, like the mom floating and two dead bodies in bags, the meanings of which escape me. I must admit these ending scenes looked indulgent, pointless and even cheesy, but what do I know?

As you have read, this is definitely NOT a movie for everyone. In fact, if I had been watching this on a DVD, I might have just fast forwarded through the whole thing, if not turn it off altogether. Running for over two and half hours but hardly any dialog, it certainly gives you time to try to come up with some sensible interpretation of what the director was trying to say, if any. There were narrations but mostly barely whispered, which made some of them really tough to hear properly and comprehend. This is most definitely an art film -- abstract art. So for those thinking about watching this, I hope to have given you an idea of what to expect.

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