Terrence Malick’s new film, “The Tree of Life,” is a visionary work that the reclusive filmmaker has been kicking around in his head for more than 30 years.
The picture, which recently won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, is a breathtaking, symphonic film that tackles questions of the universe’s origin, mankind’s existence, religion, grace, nature, loss, life and death in ways rarely seen since the heyday of Stanley Kubrick, Andrei Tarkovsky and Ingmar Bergman.
This divisive film’s melding of philosophical, theological and scientific beliefs has already been the source of much discussion.
“Tree” opens with a quote from the Book of Job during which God answers Job’s query of why the righteous suffer with His own question, “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the Earth? Tell me if you have understanding.”
It is this need to understand that drives both Malick and his film’s characters, especially Jack (Sean Penn), an architect around whose flashbacks the structure of “Tree” is set.
At the beginning of the film, we see a middle aged couple (Jessica Chastain and Brad Pitt) receive notice that one of their sons has been killed. We meet Jack as a despondent middle-aged architect who works in a gigantic steel behemoth and, at this point, we understand that the couple from the opening scenes is his mother and father, and that the boy who has died was his younger brother.
Malick then unleashes the film’s most talked about sequence – a 20-minute montage that depicts the creation of the universe as a visual feast of light and sound. It’s as if the director is reminding us that the human struggles depicted throughout the course of the movie are miniscule in comparison.
The sequence culminates in several scenes involving dinosaurs that exist beyond the purpose of instilling awe and wonder in the film’s viewers. In an earlier scene, Chastain’s mother figure discusses the difference between “grace” and “nature” – so, it is surprising to find that a brief exchange between two of the film’s prehistoric creatures manages to touch upon these themes.
The film’s next 90 minutes are set in 1950s-era Texas, where Malick spent his childhood. This half of the movie is structured as a series of vignettes during which Jack experiences a fall from innocence as Pitt’s stern father, Chastain’s doting mother and his two brothers look on.
There is little contextual cohesion between the scenes, which play more as unconnected memories, and yet they still manage to tell a story – just not in the traditional sense.
Nearly every shot in the film is stunning. The combination of Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography and Alexandre Desplat’s score - as well as classical pieces by Gustav Mahler and Sebastian Bach – make for a nearly exhausting movie-going experience.
Jack never overtly mentions the word “God” but, much like Job, he poses questions: Who are we and why are we here? What is the meaning for all the senseless tragedy – such as the death of a brother - that life has in store for us? And how can these horrors co-exist in a world so populated with breathtaking beauty?
“The Tree of Life” is a singular experience. If you are familiar with Malick’s work – “Days of Heaven” and “The Thin Red Line” – and you’ve seen “2001: A Space Odyssey,” you’ll know what wavelength to expect. But I’d still bet it’s still like nothing you’ve ever seen.
“The Hangover Part II,” on the other hand, is exactly like something you’ve seen – namely, “The Hangover.”
The sequel duplicates a number of scenes from the popular 2009 comedy but relocates to Bangkok, a move that appears to serve no purpose for the film’s story other than to provide for several ethnic jokes.
Once again, Zach Galifianakis steals virtually every scene he is in as weirdo Alan, while Bradley Cooper and Ed Helms reprise their respective roles as lothario Phil and well-meaning dentist Stu. Newcomers include Paul Giamatti and a chain smoking, drug dealing capuchin monkey.
The only element missing in this sequel is the jokes – that is, unless you find these sights funny: a pig exploding as it hits a speeding car, a severed finger, a recreation of Eddie Adams’ famous photo of an execution during the Vietnam War and a cocaine overdose.
The film is less a satire of the perception of ugly Americanism abroad than it is a celebration of it.