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With: Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, Jessica Chastain, Hunter McCracken, Laramie Eppler, Tye Sheridan, Fiona Shaw, Jessica Fuselier, Nicolas Gonda, Will Wallace, Kelly Koonce, Bryce Boudoin, Jimmy Donaldson, Kameron Vaughn, Cole Cockburn, Dustin Allen, Brayden Whisenhunt, Joanna Going, Irene Bedard, Finnegan Williams, Michael Koeth, John Howell, Samantha Martinez, Savannah Welch, Tamara Jolaine, Julia M. Smith, Anne Nabors, Christopher Ryan, Tyler Thomas, Michael Showers, Kimberly Whalen, Margaret Hoard, Wally Welch, Hudson Lee Long, Michael Dixon, William Hardy, Tommy Hollis, Cooper Franklin Sutherland, John Cyrier, Erma Lee Alexander, Nicholas Yedinak
Written by: Terrence Malick
Directed by: Terrence Malick
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some thematic material
Running Time: 138
Date: 16/05/2011

The Tree of Life (2011)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Pain, Wonder, Regret, Love, Loss... Life

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Director Terrence Malick is one of the most mysterious and powerful filmmaking talents in the world today, and the infrequent release of his movies (only five in 40 years) creates a tremendous sense of anticipation. Yet, in 2011, we are not well equipped to deal with someone like Malick. For example, he likes narration in his films, but in our Syd Field world of three-act movies with likeable characters and happy resolutions, we are taught that narration is uncinematic; it's "telling" and not showing," never mind that great narration can be as cinematic as any other element (Apocalypse Now, Manhattan, Sunset Boulevard, etc.).

We're taught that the story is the most important thing in a movie, while Malick's movies focus mainly on powerful, poetic imagery and eschew hard, linear storytelling. His scenes seem to bump into one another, finding their way to each other based on moods. Sometimes his films simply watch as characters walk along, sometimes one following another, sometimes interacting with nature, sometimes not. Most viewers are simply not used to watching movies like this. But at the same time, Malick delivers, making the same kinds of movies today as he made in the Hollywood renaissance of the 1970s (as impossible as that sounds).

The Tree of Life is perhaps Malick's darkest and most difficult movie, focusing on an angry, troubled father. In the 1950s in Waco, Texas, a man (Brad Pitt) tries to provide for his pretty wife (Jessica Chastain) and three boys, but bad luck gets the better of him. He begins to take out his failures and frustrations on his family, especially after a tragedy changes everything. Years later, the oldest boy, Jack (Sean Penn), contemplates his life and enters into a kind of dream state where he revisits the figures of his past. In-between these time periods, images of the universe and the origins of life tend to create an awesome new perspective on these small, earthly events. In telling the story of this family, Malick manages to suggest that everything is connected, and that in the grand scheme of things no single event in any town at any time is terribly important.

The new movie is based on Malick's original screenplay, and for the first time, there are no obvious outside influences, such as Henry James on Days of Heaven or Pocahontas on The New World. It's possibly the closest thing Malick has come to being "personal." It could be assumed that he had a childhood not unlike this one, or that his concerns about life and the universe are not too far away from these. Yet the movie doesn't explain anything, leaving it up to each viewer to explore his or her own reactions, which may leave viewers unsatisfied. (Even the MPAA threw up its hands in trying to label or define the movie, rating it PG-13 for "thematic material," but nothing specific.) But hope comes in the most abstract of ways, and Malick's astoundingly potent physical poetry makes all this spring to life; it's a masterpiece to be felt and experienced deeply.

Fox's gorgeous Blu-Ray does this amazing movie justice. Not surprisingly, the elusive Malick isn't involved in any of the extras. There's a half-hour featurette about the film, which includes interviews with Brad Pitt and other members of the cast and crew, plus Malick fans like Christopher Nolan and David Fincher. The three-disc set includes a Blu-Ray disc, a DVD, and a digital copy.

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